Director Todd Haynes is acclaimed for crafting glamorous, heart-swelling love stories like Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine and Carol. Author/illustrator Brian Selznick is known for crafting whimsical and bittersweet books about adventurous children, like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. Following the rapturous critical acclaim of Carol and Hugo (a Martin Scorsese-directed adaptation of Selznick’s book), these imaginative storytellers combine forces for the Selznick-penned movie Wonderstruck, which parallels the odysseys of two headstrong children separated by fifty years and many miles.
Pete’s Dragon’s Oakes Fegley stars as Ben, a young boy grieving the death of his mother (Michelle Williams) in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, 1977. Haunted by dreams of wolves and a hunger to know his father, Ben clings to a bookmark that he believes is a crucial clue. On it is the information for a Manhattan bookstore, and a note to his mother signed, “Love, Danny.” Late one night, Ben dares to call the store’s number, but as fate would have it lightning strikes, knocking him out and making him deaf. Undeterred, Danny runs off to New York in search of his father, and takes refuges in the wide and wonder-filled wings of the American Museum of Natural History.
Intercut with Ben’s journey is that of a determined deaf girl named Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds). Her journey begins in Hoboken, New Jersey, 1927. There she builds model towns out of magazines, and dedicatedly crafts scrapbooks of her favorite silent film star, the gorgeous Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). But Rose’s father (James Urbaniak) is frustrated by these preoccupations, and is determined to have pull her head from the clouds and into lessons with a tutor. But Rose escapes to New York City, seeking out the movie star, and winding up wandering the grand halls of—you guessed it—the American Museum of Natural History.
There’s an easy charm to these parallel narratives. Doll-faced children stick forth stubborn chins into a bustling but beautiful cityscape. And rather than punished or imperiled, they find family, make friends, and discover some of the many, many marvels that tucked in special pockets of New York City. The echoing of these threads suggest fate watches out for both even as they wander blindly into busy streets or nestle into shadowy back rooms. Despite the repetition of beats, Haynes keeps things from growing stale by giving each story an aesthetic befitting of its era. Ben’s story is full of color, green-yellow hues and a rowdy exuberance that sings of ’70s cinema. By contrast, Rose’s story is presented in black and white, with no sound effects. Like the silent cinema with which she is enamored, character dialogue is conveyed through stark black title cards with white text. A simple score plays as her only accompaniment. And while these shifts in tone and look can be a bit jarring, the breezy charisma of Wonderstruck’s child stars smooth over its rough edges. (Jaden Michael as Ben’s streetwise playmate is especially endearing.) But in the end, it feels too simple, too predictable.
Wonderstruck is a beautiful movie that makes New York City a wonderland, so it’s little wonder it was chosen as part of New York Film Festival’s Main Slate. But for all its lovely locations, neat parallels, and winsome performances, it feels lightweight. It feels like kids’ stuff. The emotional depth and nuance of gesture and expression that has become a much-anticipated element of Hayne’s filmmaking is lost here among shouting children and silent film-style overacting. And because Ben and Rose’s stories are so similar, the viewer is dared from the start to figure out how they might intertwine. And from even the description above, you can probably guess correctly.
Predictability aside, Wonderstruck is visually engaging but emotionally shallow, a complaint I also had about Hugo. Once more, Selznick’s story is dripping in nostalgia for bygone eras and the cinema that keeps them alive. But nostalgia and whimsy are not enough to give weight or vibrancy to his dreamy tales. From Haynes I expect to feel my heart pound in my chest, my breath to catch in my throat. Yet here is a story of death, lightning strikes, and life-changing quests into the heart of my beloved home city, and I was left amused but unfazed.
Wonderstruck premieres at the New York Film Festival on October 7th, before hitting select theaters October 20th.