After wowing Cannes just two years ago with his slick and almost tactile Carol, Todd Haynes’ latest offering sees him venture into family fare. Adapted from the eponymous children’s novel by Brian Selznick – he who brought us Hugo Cabret – Wonderstruck tells parallel tales of children in search of parental love.
The film opens with the hero Ben (Oakes Fegley) lying in bed in his cousin’s room in Minnesota. The year is 1977 and there are the usual trappings of the era, from the Starsky and Hutch poster on the wall to the mish-mash of plaid, patterns and various shades of brown on all the soft furnishings. Ben’s mother (Michelle Williams) has just died in a car accident and Ben is now essentially an orphan, his father an unknown and absent entity, albeit very present in Ben’s imagination. The film follows his quest to find his mysterious father, a trail that leads him from his home in the wolf-filled woods to the mean streets of New York.
Parallel to Ben’s story is that of Rose. We are now in 1927 Hoboken and in silent era territory. The film turns black and white and silence reigns, not just because of the era but because Rose herself is deaf. Never having learnt sign language, she is in a permanent silent movie. Her heroine is the beautiful silent movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Talkies are on the cusp of taking over the silver screen and Rose’s own life is on the cusp of change as she is about to learn sign language. Initially, Rose is a mirror for Ben (who is deafened following a freak lightning strike): they are both without a mother, both seek answers in the stars – Ben through his passion for astronomy and space travel, Rose for the stars of Hollywood – and they both head for New York City in a quest for finding family.
While the silent treatment is a clever ploy for dealing with the graphic novel content of the book, it is one that soon palls for the viewer. The constant writing down of comments slows the pace and we ache for the story to proceed. 1977 New York is faster paced, full of denizens in fabulous attire, kids playing in a spurting fire hydrant, and the streets full of music (despite our young hero being deaf). However, despite the many clichés foisted on the city, Haynes renders the feel of the place in all its grimy allure. Less attractive and successful are the scenes of 1927 New York, which are overly contrived.
Maybe the same could be said of the entire movie: it is just too contrived. While the story of stars aligning and destinies repeating themselves and overlapping is appealing, in this story they align a little too neatly, leaving you less wonderstruck and more dumbfounded as to the story’s (or stories’) credibility. There is also an issue with ramming a theme down the audience’s collective throat. We get that Ben likes stars, but we have to have astronaut pyjamas, a telescope and David Bowie’s Space Oddity, with a meteorite thrown in for good measure. And the denouement, which has a lengthy exposition using stop-motion, has everything slotting just too nicely into place. That said, the use of a storm to connect the myriad stories is rounded off nicely with the famous New York power cut. While Ben has been tormented by wolves in the woods in his nightmares, we see a city enshrouded in darkness that is a wilder and more magical place.
So, this film is not all bad, but there is a little too much repetition of the recent nostalgia trend we’ve seen successfully portrayed in Stranger Things (and less so in Vinyl). Perhaps it is also a fault of the book and not the filmmaker that the story is a little too whimsical. The film is aimed at younger viewers, but they could well lose patience with the action or lack thereof. They might not buy the burgeoning friendship between Ben and Jamie (the adorable Jaden Michael) or the fact that this charmer has no friends. They certainly won’t find many similarities between how they talk and what these two excellent young leads come out with. It seems Haynes has aimed this tale more at a dewy-eyed, nostalgic adult audience rather than younger viewers, which is a shame as there is certainly charm and a little magic here.