Bright Lights Film Journal

Wonderstruck II: Todd Haynes’ Places of Discovery and Wonder

Wonderstruck seems a retreat from some of Haynes’ established themes, in that it’s not set in the fifties and, as a PG-rated, child-oriented adventure film, instead pursues the marvelous and the wondrous. In a Q&A following an early showing of the film in Hollywood, Haynes confirmed it was precisely this difference from his previous work that drew him to the material.

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The overwhelming cascade of revelations this week regarding sexual coercion in Hollywood has some moviegoers asking if their habit is akin to blood diamonds. Are movies, finally, just endless regressive fantasies of weaponry and porn-style happy endings? So Todd HaynesWonderstruck, with its simultaneous innocence and virtuosity, arrives like a breeze on a scorching late-empire afternoon.

Wonderstruck is adapted from the novel by writer-illustrator Brian Selznick, the same source for the visually splendid Martin Scorsese film Hugo. Wonderstruck provides its director a momentary vacation from his usual thematic preoccupations (yes, this is family friendly) while allowing his love of movie form to shine.

For anyone halfway conversant with contemporary film, the name Todd Haynes summons a clutch of associations, among them flawless craftsmanship; extreme immersion in certain historical periods, mainly American; melodrama; rock ’n’ roll; reverence for cinematic narrative traditions along with a taste for testing and expanding those narratives by introducing queer sexuality. Wonderstruck seems a retreat from some of these established themes, in that it’s not set in the fifties and, as a PG-rated, child-oriented adventure film, instead pursues the marvelous and the wondrous. In a Q&A following an early showing of the film in Hollywood, Haynes confirmed it was precisely this difference from his previous work that drew him to the material. Landing as it does in this Autumn of the Patriarch (cross fingers, knock wood), the film strikes this viewer as a welcome respite, and furthermore, a film you can bring your child to without feeling like you are financing a letch sacrificing a virgin.

The stultifying atmosphere of 1950s upper-middle-class white America, developed in such rich if suffocating detail in Haynes’ signature Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol, are gone, replaced by not one but two lost eras: the seventies and the twenties. The seventies has long fascinated Haynes. In fact one could argue that the seventies, which witnessed the birth of gay and feminist and black power, in some sense paradoxically create the fifties of Haynes films. The glittering musical cosmonaut David Bowie somehow tunnels to a newly burnished Patricia Highsmith, no longer pulp fiction but the stuff of movie art. In the work of Haynes, not only does the past create the future, but, somehow, magically, the future breaks open our understanding of the past.

Wonderstruck concerns a twelve-year-old boy Ben (Oakes Fegley) growing up with a single mother (Michelle Williams) in the remote Midwestern town of Gunflint Lake, Michigan. After his mother’s abrupt death in a car crash, Ben sets off for New York City, following a vaporous trail he believes may lead to his unknown father. Meanwhile, a story set fifty years earlier concerning a deaf girl named Rose (played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) unfolds simultaneously and in mysterious relation to that of Ben.

One of the wonders of the film lies in its employment of music and, to a remarkable degree, silence. Both stories concern deaf children who, for different reasons, are not familiar with sign language. Therefore they must communicate through writing on paper, a seamless incorporation of silent film conventions. Since neither Ben nor Rose knows sign language, they must frequently write to communicate, weaving the silent film convention of written dialogue into the film. And Rose herself is obsessed with silent films, and her own segments of the film are shot in black and white with no sound except the accompanying music, like the live organ accompaniment to an early “moving picture.”

Haynes plays with the tropes of silent film here, just as he did earlier with the conventions of mid-century “women’s pictures.” As in previous films like Far from Heaven Haynes manages to animate what could become merely a formal exercise; and, in the case of Wonderstruck, he creates a children’s film that is also a rich experience for adults. Partly it is the exquisite attention to detail: Haynes rightfully credits Sandy Powell (costume design) and Mark Friedberg (production design) as absolutely integral to his efforts in recreating two very different eras, both remote from now. There’s no question their impeccable attention to detail adds a level of interest to each new setting, as in a pivotal scene which takes place in a typical New York bookstore of the late seventies. The editions of contemporary bestsellers like Roots and Fear of Flying we see on display seem to bring tidings of a distant era. Who knew a crowded bookstore, a casual backdrop to a half dozen Woody Allen films, could bring such a fierce whiff of nostalgia and loss? There’s a Jamesian – no, Haynesian – attention to detail, in which we feel that the moral life of a time period can actually be understood, even altered, through a deep enough attention to its mores. A wrinkle in time indeed.

For children of the seventies (parents of the intended audience?), there is something especially poignant in hearing the jaunty, hypnotic tunes of our childhood as we dive into a series of street re-creations of the fashions of the era. David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is a recurrent motif, occasionally reworked as a children’s ditty, and carries a powerful charge in what can only be called the post-Ziggy Stardust period (now). This is child’s play, in some sense, but of a very serious kind. Much of the film’s main action revolves around museums, treated not as a dusty mausoleums but a place of discovery and wonder.

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Note: All images courtesy of Amazon Studios.