It is hard to imagine anybody other than Todd Haynes bringing this work to the screen and we should be very thankful that he did. Adapted by Brian Selznick from his own book, Wonderstruck is for the birth of museums what Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (filmed as Hugo by Martin Scorcese) is for the birth of cinema. Haynes has crafted an immaculately exquisite fable about the search for connection; both with other people and the world in which we live. The film features two separate narratives set 50 years apart in New York and each features a 12-year-old deaf character searching for the pieces that they believe will make their lives complete. With previous films such as Carol and Far from Heaven, Haynes has demonstrated a capacity to craft deeply emotional and lusciously luminous films and he has achieved that again here with a movie that rails against convention but should prove as equally appealing to kids as it will to adults.
It is 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Michigan, where Ben (Oakes Fegley) lives with relatives following the death of his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams). In flashbacks, we learn that, despite his best efforts, he was unable to obtain any information about his father, with Elaine always declaring that she would tell him when the time was right. Of course, that time never came and it is when Ben sneaks back to his mother’s room that he discovers a clue to his father’s identity, only to suffer a freak accident that leaves him unable to hear. As soon as he wakes up in the hospital, Ben hatches a plan to follow his clue and make a break for New York City. Fegley (Pete’s Dragon) seems a little out of sorts in the early scenes, but once he reaches New York, he brings his character to life as he traverses the city with a naivety that proves to be both an asset and a liability, forming a wonderfully naturalistic friendship along with way with Jamie (Jaden Michael), a loner who relishes the opportunity to introduce Ben to the delights of the Museum of Natural History.
Presented as a silent film in keeping with its 1927 setting, the second narrative arc follows Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf girl who lives with her overbearing father in Hoboken, New Jersey. She spends her time building models of the New York skyline she can see from her window and going to the cinema to see her favourite movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Frustrated by her father’s imperiousness, Rose sets off across the Hudson River to Manhattan in search of Mayhew, and one of the many delights to be had in the film is the contrasting depictions of the city. For Rose, her only real danger is the inherent challenge of traversing the hustle and bustle of the city without hearing, while Ben has to negotiate a city mired in tension and urban decay, a sea of ethnic bohemia awash with panhandlers, hustlers and thieves.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman captures all of the textures of New York and editor Affonso Goncalves gracefully eases back and forth between the dual stories. The connection between the two threads is revealed in the final act, with an animated sequence that harks back to Haynes’ 1988 short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and, whilst the revelations that result are somewhat transparent, the sheer charm of this sequence makes for an entirely satisfactory conclusion, both narratively and emotionally. In her fourth collaboration with Haynes, Moore takes on two different characters over the course of the film and is as reliable as ever. Williams, meanwhile, shines once again despite the limited screen time afforded her while Simmonds, who is deaf in real life, is wonderfully expressive in her first ever role. Soul-stirring and unashamedly optimistic, Wonderstruck is an uplifting, visually intoxicating film from a visionary and unconventional filmmaker.