Bright Lights Film Journal

Wonderstruck I: Synchronizing the Heart with the Eyes

Haynes spares us slack-jawed bug-eyed Spielbergian reactions shots, but he also denies us deep emotional engagement. The visuals shadow and overwhelm the actors as they wander the bustling Haynes-Selznick landscapes.

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Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’ high-reaching ode to youthful dreams and disappointments, comes to us from New Jersey born designer-illustrator-author Brian Selznick’s popular 2011 book. Selznick is a historical novelist, but hardly in the classic James Michener-Herman Wouk mold. He combines words and images into fanciful, twisty, object-laden adult-and-kid-friendly storytelling. His best-known book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, became the Martin Scorsese film Hugo, about an orphan rescuing the automata of pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès from a museum garbage pile.

There are no easy antecedents for Wonderstruck, for no book or film has heretofore been concerned with two deaf children separated by fifty years (1927 and 1977) alone in New York City searching for clues to family mysteries. Both survive on ingenuity and determination, and both find a strange comfort at the American Museum of Natural History as their stories intersect with grown-ups and ancestors played by, among others, Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams.

Wonderstruck is devoted to children’s capacity for awe and discovery in the material world. Haynes’ camera languishes on the taxidermy of the museum’s dioramas, and delights in what’s hidden in the musty old drawers of forgotten storage rooms. I like Todd Haynes because, unlike so many filmmakers, he is humble enough to recognize and consciously tribute his predecessors without being imitative. He takes what’s fine about far outré film styles and overlays them with what’s permitted in the twenty-first century. The 1927 Wonderstruck sequences are suffused with a pulsing silvery glow evoking the best surviving films of the late silent era. His film-within-a-film snippet Daughters of the Storm is a title in proximity to D. W. Griffith’s 1922 Orphans of the Storm. Moore as actress Lillian (Gish) Mayhew battling relentless big weather while clutching her swaddled baby does pure honor to Victor Seastrom’s 1928 The Wind.

Certain moments of Wonderstruck are rapturous in their visual beauty. When young Rose (remarkable deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) falls on a busy Manhattan street and looks up to find a kindly stranger offering to assist her, or rides a trolley while the blazing neon lights of Times Square burn in the background, the shots are as translucently beautiful as anything in late silent masterpiece The Crowd.

The 1970s scenes are shot on grainy film stock in the garbage-strewn pre-Disney cesspit of Times Square, evoking the era of Klute and Dog Day Afternoon. The feat may be greater than what Haynes achieves with the earlier decade. He nails the look and sound of a period noted for its lack of visual precision – the handheld cameras and hit-and-miss focusing of 1970s urban street scenes. Haynes is a master of details, right down to the perfect display choices of Hawaii, In Cold Blood, and Oliver’s Story in a chock-a-block Upper West Side bookstore. Production designer Mark Friedberg, director of photography Ed Lachman, and composer Carter Burwell, for his varied score inspired by the live music accompanying silent films, are likely to be names repeated this coming awards season.

Todd Haynes on the set of Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck celebrates the power of sight and tactility heightened by the absence of sound. Less immediate, and steadfastly desired by this viewer, was an equivalent commitment to the heart. In addition to his gifts of visual stylizing, Haynes can map human emotions with stunning perception. His features Safe, Far from Heaven, and Carol, and HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce, are each devastating in their explorations of women’s feelings thwarted, repressed, and ultimately liberated. They comment pointedly on race, sexuality, and class under their deceptively placid surfaces. Wonderstruck is largely unconcerned with such sociology, but is instead preoccupied with its own veiled truths. I was ready to give this one a good cry, as I did for the others, but it didn’t happen. Wonderstruck has children, search for family and tribe, death, and transformation – all elements to pluck heartstrings. But the inherent emotionality of the story is muted by so many relics in the museum’s Cabinet of Wonders, or by a visit to the amazing 1964 New York City miniature housed at the Queens Museum.

Haynes spares us slack-jawed bug-eyed Spielbergian reactions shots, but he also denies us deep emotional engagement. The visuals shadow and overwhelm the actors as they wander the bustling Haynes-Selznick landscapes. Moore, playing two very different women, is reliably good, while I suppose the bulk of Williams’ surprisingly brief performance was left in the cutting room. Wonderstruck reveals its secrets at the end with a voice-over. How unfortunate. We’re denied figuring out the puzzle for ourselves. That leaves a worthy if frustrated effort to combine dreamlike storytelling and gentle observations of human behavior.

Wonderstruck traverses the magic of collections and antiques – things as gateways to the mystical corners of childhood memory and imagination. But this is no harangue for adults to embrace the child within, nor does it reduce youth to sweetness and light. The lonely search for answers to family questions amidst the onslaught of time and death is hardly kid’s stuff. Wonderstruck doesn’t always straddle its contrasting worlds of sound and silence, and youth and age, with masterful ease, but it does add a bit of magic to the world that wasn’t there before.

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All images courtesy of Amazon Studios.