New York Times Movie Review

Review: ‘Wonderstruck,’ Todd Haynes’s Imitations of Life

By Manhola Dargis

Stars glitter and worlds collide in Todd Haynes’s “Wonderstruck,” a lovely ode to imagination and to the stories that make us who we are. A cleverly bifurcated tale of two children, it starts in 1977 with Ben (Oakes Fegley), a boy of about 10 in rural Minnesota. He’s in mourning for his mother (Michelle Williams in flashback) and has a question mark — an absent father — that needs solving. First, though, there’s David Bowie on the turntable (“ground control to Major Tom”) and a lightning strike that leaves Ben deaf. Fearless and resourceful, Ben splits for New York to find his father. Ben’s story-twin, whose life and adventures curiously mirror his own, is Rose (Millicent Simmonds, a discovery), a 12-year-old deaf girl in 1927 who yearns to escape her lonely, cosseted life in Hoboken, N.J. To that end, following in the footsteps of countless other dreamers, she, too, flees to New York. There, she seeks out her absent mother, but instead finds a cipher (Julianne Moore), a screen star who clutches fictional babes to her breast but has no time for life’s real lost children. As undaunted and determined as Ben, Rose sets off again, entering a world thrumming with coincidences and complications.

Despite the distinct periods and palettes — Ben’s story unfolds in color, Rose’s in black and white — the story, the editing and the children’s deafness underscore that these two are deeply connected. The film’s mysteries include how and why they fit, and its satisfactions involve seeing where the scattered bread crumbs lead. How, for instance, an Oscar Wilde line in Ben’s room — “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” — fits into the larger puzzle. And why, after Ben asks his mother about his father, the film shifts to a plaintive Rose, who’s looking at a movie-magazine ad trumpeting “Our Brightest Stars.” Both that Wilde epigram and Rose’s film fandom are hints, clues in a story that eventually dovetails with Mr. Haynes’s interest in images and identity.

“Wonderstruck” is based on a hefty, generously illustrated children’s book by Brian Selznick, best known for “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” Martin Scorsese turned that book into “Hugo,” a reverie about movie love that also features dead parents, a grave if pluckily resourceful child, many whirring yet connected parts and a preoccupation with the cinematic. The film version of “Wonderstruck” draws from much the same overflowing treasure-trove of ideas, although Mr. Haynes (like Mr. Scorsese) often feels most energized by the many different ways human beings — with cinematic sights and sounds, through wall shadows and painstaking miniatures — put the world in a box.

Both Rose and Ben fantasize about escaping their lives, but they need a little push, inspiration. Storytelling lies at the heart of “Wonderstruck” — its two children are effectively writing their way out of one reality and into another — and the film is chockablock with those boxed worlds, with imitations of life like dioramas, doll-size figurines, stuffed animals, illustrations and an ingenious paper city. Much like the cabinet of curiosities that Rose and Ben each discover, these representations point to new worlds and alternative realities. And, as they pile up, Mr. Haynes joins the story’s halves with craft and wit. Rose’s half isn’t just in black and white, it also emotionally and gesturally recalls a late-period silent film; Ben’s, by contrast, has the rough textures and bleeding colors that summon 1970s big-screen New York.

Although the film follows the novel fairly closely — Mr. Selznick wrote the script — it nevertheless is very much a Todd Haynes production. Its ideas feel pitched to an older audience, for one, and its emotional temperature is cooler than that of Mr. Selznick’s book, which is soon splashed in tears as Ben’s terror gives way to anguish about his mother. Mr. Haynes is happy to set a wolf after Ben in the woods, a jaggedly shot chase bathed in midnight blue, but he refrains from easy sentimentalism. (The director of photography is Ed Lachman.) As a filmmaker, Mr. Haynes prefers appealing to our heads over tugging at our hearts, and so for a while he keeps you at an intellectual remove.

Part of the pleasure of Mr. Haynes’s films — which include “I’m Not There” and “Carol” — is how he deploys intellectual distance as he plays with cinematic form, considers identity and upends clichés. Elsewhere, this can come across as dreary, even programmatic. Yet because Mr. Haynes also leads with his characters rather than his ideas, his films gather force until, at times with near-violent suddenness, they become devastatingly, skin-prickingly alive. In Mr. Haynes’s “Far From Heaven,” his combination of playfulness and seriousness translates into a homage to Sirkian melodrama that turns into a thrilling example of the very same. And, in “Wonderstruck,” a children’s story about finding your place in the world, in time becomes a Haynesian exploration of identity, desire and imagination.

“Wonderstruck” takes a while to find its groove, but it gets there. Mr. Haynes’s oscillation between the story’s two halves is gracefully handled (the editor is Affonso Gonçalves), but it can create a frustrating sense of narrative interruptus. That’s particularly true because it’s hard not to miss Rose when Ben is onscreen. Part of this has to do with the charming exoticism of her old-time world with its winking artifice and cinematic allusions. Ben’s half has its attractions, including his new pal (Jaden Michael) and the sun-blasted vision of a broiling New York summer. But it’s also the section in which the machinery of Mr. Selznick’s storytelling, with its mysticism and coincidences, creaks the loudest.

r. Selznick’s emphasis on wonder — represented by the story’s surfeit of enchantments and the near-miraculously fitted parts — can feel bullying, as if he were demanding delight instead of earning it. Yet even as he follows Mr. Selznick’s narrative lead, Mr. Haynes quietly and touchingly makes “Wonderstruck” his own because the wonder of the film isn’t in its story but in its telling. It’s in the expressive beauty of his images, the expansiveness of his ideas and the way he naturally, generously brings a once-upon-a-time girl and boy to life, allowing them to find themselves — in their willfulness, their heartbreaks and their imaginings — so that eventually they can find someone else.