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‘Wonderstruck’ Is a Wonderfully Experimental “Children’s Movie”

Todd Haynes’s adventurous, mysterious film is about sights and sounds, textures and colors, objects, feelings, and memories—and above all, discovery

Amazon Studios

Have you ever gotten lost in a museum—or seen a movie that made you wish you had? Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’s magical new film, is one such movie. Based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 children’s book of the same name, Wonderstruck tells the story of two children separated by time and, initially, by space—but brought together by a history of feeling.

In Hoboken, in 1927, a young deaf girl named Rose keeps skipping school to catch silent films starring her favorite movie star, the fictional Lillian Mayhew. One day, after an altercation with her mean-tempered father, Rose escapes by ferry to New York City to find the actress, whose connection to Rose’s life is richer than it initially seems. Meanwhile, in 1977, in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, a boy named Ben is still mourning the death of his mother when, in a freak accident, he too goes deaf, and his entire world shifts on its axis. Ben has long wondered about the identity of his father; his mother’s death leaves that question unresolved. But Ben has clues, among them a bookmark inscripted, “Love, Daniel”—a possession of his mother’s that he carries with him everywhere like a talisman. Like Rose, Ben sets out on a journey—and like Rose, it’s a journey to the heart of New York.

That sort of sums the movie up, but not really. It tells you the story, but Wonderstruck, a movie about discovery above all else, is not really an experience that hinges so much on plot. This is a movie premised, instead, on guiding us through an array of sensations. It’s about sights and sounds, textures and colors, objects, feelings, and memories. The movie opens with a boy dreaming of wolves: a blue, ravenously assembled collage of images that bespeak horror as much as wonder. It ends two hours later with a family history told museum-style, through dioramas and moving figurines, as if the story of one’s ancestry were both living history and exhibit. Everything explored in between—from the encroaching death of silent movies and the New York City blackout of 1977 to a sensitive study of hearing and deaf communication across the century—is crafted with the same sense of affection and daring as the movie’s more experimental bits.

This is all clear from the start. In Wonderstruck’s opening minutes, we experience both a flashback and a separate 50-year leap backward in time, quickly and easily switching to and fro between Rose’s and Ben’s separate narrative currents while also, within Ben’s story, hopping back and forth through time. It sounds complicated, but the stable, rockaby rhythm of it is more seductive than confusing. You of course immediately wonder what these two kids—similar in their loneliness but occupying utterly distinct contexts—have to do with each other. And as conceived by Haynes, that’s a question only heightened by the look and style of each story, with Rose’s 1927 half filmed in grainy black-and-white and Ben’s in the grit-rich, gently verging on pulpy tones familiar to ’70s New York.

It’s an odd, adventurous tapestry. Rose, played by the magnificently expressive deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, lives in a silent movie. Her father is a tyrant. This half of the movie lacks dialogue and is instead rife with big gestures, sound effects, and jaunty music, but you don’t need to hear what Rose’s father says to know that his aversion to her disability sums up the era. And what a curious era it is, taking place right on the cusp of Rose’s passion—movies—getting modernized. The year 1927 marks an early moment in the sound era, and with it, a radical shift in access for people like Rose. In her notebook she writes things like “Help” and “Where Do I Belong?,” then tears out the paper and makes paper boats. Ben (Pete’s Dragon’s Oakes Fegley), meanwhile, feels similarly lost in 1977, especially when he gets struck by lightning and loses his hearing. His adventure really gets going when he lands in a loud, diverse, hot New York and, randomly following a kid he meets, winds up on a path to discovering the history of his family.

Julianne Moore in ‘Wonderstruck’
Julianne Moore in ‘Wonderstruck’
Amazon Studios

It’s no wonder the movie’s centerpieces are the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, and the Queens Museum, because Wonderstruck is its own museum of natural, artistic, and specifically New York–centered wonders. And Todd Haynes, working alongside an A-team of collaborators (among them cinematographer Ed Lachman and composer Carter Burwell), is its curator-in-chief. He pulls from everywhere, just as his deft, alert camera seems equipped to see everything, especially when following the whims and wonders of children. Each story is designed to match “the era” in some way, which is a trick Haynes explores in pretty much all of his movies. But Wonderstruck isn’t really another one of Haynes’s mind tricks, à la Far From Heaven or I’m Not There, movies in which Haynes goes out of his way to reproduce, and throw into question, touchstone film styles, from the color-saturated Douglas Sirk melodrama to Don’t Look Back–era D.A. Pennebaker.

The artifice of it all has long held interest for Haynes. Wonderstruck is a little less direct. With only a momentary exception, the 1927 half doesn’t imitate what we have in mind when we say “silent movie,” despite its lack of spoken dialogue and familiarly comical use of sound effects. No, Haynes opts instead to take his cues from only the most harrowing, modern silent films of the era, like King Vidor’s The Crowd and F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, whose visual grammar was instilled with a sense of awe at the newness and bigness of skyscrapers and the bustling new world. These movies inspire in Haynes some of the best images of New York I’ve seen in recent memory. They dare to remember a time when huge buildings were thrilling, imposing, and new, and when the bustle of the city felt newly hatched, a sign of the future. One of the most incredible sights here is the silhouette of a man speaking to Rose as, behind him, the enormity of a skyscraper pushes into view.

It’s the kind of image that steeps Wonderstruck in a tactile but mysterious sense of place—and of history. The images become a force that brings these characters together. Ben and Rose have a common language—Haynes’s style—that steadily reels them toward shared destiny. It feels as if their adventures are starting to mesh, as if they are exploring the same places at the same time and could reach out and touch each other. Haynes has always been remarkable at making the familiar seem just this side of uncanny. He relies on images of even mundane things to spark our curiosity. There’s a moment, for example, when a newspaper clipping flies out of Rose’s hands on the ferry and twists and swoops between the legs of the other passengers. It’s oddly heart-quickening: There’s the raw beauty of the sequence itself, which gently chases the clipping through its elegant twirls farther out of reach. And then there’s the feeling that Haynes has somehow instilled the clipping with its own sense of fancy, as if a piece of paper were, like Rose herself, following whims of its own. It’s just paper flying in the wind—why does it feel so much greater?

It’s remarkable, I think, that we’re calling this a kids’ movie. Not that we shouldn’t. Haynes told Film Comment that the movie tested wonderfully with children, and I don’t doubt that. But it’s simply not the kind of movie we typically give to children—primarily because we underestimate their intelligence. Brian Selznick also wrote the book that became the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which is a good movie (especially for film history nerds) but not, to my mind, a satisfying children’s feature. Something about it feels too anchored to the real world—Scorsese flirts with fantasy and the fanciful, but the movie doesn’t really fly off the rails.

Wonderstruck, by contrast, seems to play by its own rules. Its high emotional stakes make sense, in the end, but it’s Haynes’s wide-eyed filmmaking that makes the job of guiding these young adventurers through a vast, complicated world feel like an adventure in itself. Haynes, mostly recognized as a leader in queer filmmaking, is reminding us here that his more specific interest is in outsiders—and in cinema’s ability to chip away at their lived experiences through subtle experiments in form. His filmmaking is as intellectual as it is emotional: He makes you feel the power of objects, glances, touches, and the rest. Movies are above all experiences. Every good director knows that, but Wonderstruck is a movie by the rare filmmaker gifted enough to show it.