Visually Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck is as impressive and meticulously crafted as Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. It is as inventive and daring as anything I’ve seen this year, with a plethora of cinematic styles blended together seamlessly and beautifully. Yet, when the music swells at the end we’re left wondering what was the point?
Wonderstruck concerns itself with two stories that run parallel to each other. We switch back and forth between the two as we struggle to figure out how they relate to one another. Haynes is great director and his cuts between the stories are rarely obvious or predictable.
Brian Selznick wrote the script and the book the Wonderstruck is adapted from. Selznick has given Haynes precious little to work with. This is one of those melodramatic movies where the movie builds and builds while the music swells only to reveal a character we’ve never met had a heart condition, and isn’t it all beautiful. At least that’s what we’re meant to feel. Instead we feel cheated and annoyed that we wasted all that time for something that could’ve easily been reconciled with two lines of dialogue.
The two stories are told in distinct and different styles. We have Rose’s (Millicent Simmonds) story told in black and white and no dialogue. It’s filmed as a silent movie and takes place in 1928 New Jersey. While Ben’s (Oakes Fegley) story takes place in 1977 Michigan and is filmed in color with sound. Rose was born deaf and struggles to fit in. Ben became deaf after lightning struck a telephone pole while he was on the phone trying to call his recently deceased mother Elaine (Michelle Williams).
Selznick has the engine of the film rest on the shakiest and flimsiest of tropes: ‘the unnecessary secret’. This is a device used by writers to manufacture drama. One character knows something vital but for convoluted reasons tells no one. If they would tell anyone this secret, all the problems of the story would be solved. In this case the ‘unnecessary secret’ is the identity of Ben’s father.
When the identity of Ben’s father is revealed we are left wondering why all the secrecy was necessary. If Ben knew who his father was, he wouldn’t have run away to New York to hunt him down following a series of vague and quirky clues. But if we cut that out then Ben’s whole story would be pointless; which is fine because it is.
Selznick uses Rose’s story to prop up Ben’s pointless whiny and entitled nonsense. Rose’s story is dramatically more interesting and emotionally more worthy of our investment. Rose lives in the country with her father. She is well cared for but one could hardly call it a loving home. Her father has hired a teacher to teach Rose to speak but not teach her sign language.
Simmonds is magnificent as a young deaf girl struggling to find her way in a world more and more designed for her parents and not her. Her only escape is watching her mother, the great silent screen actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) at the local cinema. As she leaves, she sees men moving large speakers as signs that advertise a new form of cinema, ‘talkies,’ flap in the wind. Simmonds face is an open book and we can’t tear our eyes from it.
Haynes and Lachman craft an almost perfect silent film from a deaf girl’s perspective. There is such perfection and delicate emotional nuance to Rose’s story. We groan as we’re forced back to Ben’s colorized world.
Fegley’s Ben is insufferable. In his defense, Selznick gives him precious little to do and think. He’s either overly precocious or monosyllabic. Fegley is burdened by a script that demands he do silly and overly dramatic things simply to maneuver him from plot point A to plot point B.
Ben’s story is not a complete wash though. After arriving in New York, Ben meets Jamie (Jaden Michael), a young black boy about his age. The two hit it off and become friends almost immediately. There is a tenderness to how Haynes hangs back and allows us to watch these two kids develop a relationship with each other.
Ben’s story may be a dramatically vacant wasteland but Haynes pulls out all the stops. Montages for dream sequences, museum exhibits beautifully lit in technicolor, and 1977 New York has never looked so authentically dirty. Seriously if nothing else the production design of Hayne’s 1977 New York combined with Rose’s story is worth the price of admission alone.
As we learn about Ben’s father and what happened, Haynes and Lachman switch away from live action into stop motion dioramas. It’s an inventive and delightful way to frame a needlessly dramatic reveal. Or it would be if the reveal contained any emotional oomph. Instead it’s a visually inventive way to schlep off a schmaltzy ending.
There is another plot point involving a ‘cabinet of wonder’. These were cabinets people used to to store collections of valuables and heirlooms. They were early museums. The cabinet plays such an integral role visually and yet such an unimportant role dramatically I was left wondering what the significance was when it was revealed Ben and Jamie had been sleeping in one.
Wonderstruck is an infuriating hollow film. As gorgeous and inventive as Haynes is with his storytelling, the story itself makes you feel every passing second. It’s hard to not like a movie so well meaning that they have hands appear behind the credits so they translate the names of the cast and crew into sign language. It’s hard, but not impossible.