Todd Haynes movies, love ’em or … not? Wait, does anyone not love Todd Haynes movies? Anyway, the point is that the man is a consummate visual storyteller, and in that regard Wonderstruck might be his magnum opus. There two main stories, one set in the 1970s and another in the 1920s, each with a child protagonist and each moving in their own ways. If you’re thinking that they might be connected, yes, of course they are both to each other and a third story told later in the film.
It would have been easy to adapt this story, a kids novel, for kids but Wonderstruck is a moving tale for all ages.
The story begins with Ben (Oakes Fegley), in 1977, who has just lost his mother (Michelle Williams) and his hearing. Angry and afraid, he finds some clues about the father he never knew and follows them to New York, to the Museum of Natural History, a new friend, and a closed book store.
In 1927 Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, lives with her father in New Jersey. He is frustrated with her and she with him, but she finds escape in the scrapbook she keeps of silent movie star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). On a particularly bad day she also run away to New York to find her idol.
The stories are woven together beautifully, each complimenting the other in theme and pace, with the stories rhyming back and forth nearly perfectly, but also amazingly (mostly) sans dialogue. Rose’s story in particular has no audible dialogue at all (and shot in black and white), mimicking her and Simmonds experience in the world. It’s absolutely delightful, and a lot of that comes down to Simmonds herself. She brings a real sense of wonder to the part of a child lost in the big city. Innocent and, well, wonderstruck, she’s a revelation that I hope we’ll see more of.
Ben’s story is also a wonderful adventure, particularly his night in the Museum of Natural History with a new friend. Oakes Fegley is a great your actor, between this and Pete’s Dragon last year this kid is one to watch.
Julianne Moore also plays a deaf character and these two kids and her really make magic with their mostly wordless performances. There’s never any doubt about what she is feeling, and you could probably have told the entire story with just her eyes.
New York too plays a part in the film, with both the stylized city of the 1920s looming large behind Rose, or the grimy 1970s version of the city’s stifling heat illuminating the background of Ben’s story.
When the stories eventually come together and the third story is told it happens in a 10ish minute dump of exposition. This sounds like it might be bad but let’s remember that Haynes is a consummate visual storyteller and the sequence not only retains the whimsy of the rest of the movie but packs an emotional wallop to boot. I can’t tell you why, you just need to experience it for yourself.
Wonderstruck may have started as a kids book but in the hands of Todd Haynes it has become a fairy tale for kids of all ages and one you should definitely see.