Wonderstruck: Todd Haynes’ Beautifully Adapts Children’s Story

Every once in a while, a director comes along and wows me within our very first interaction and they become one of my favorites. As quite the Bob Dylan fan (and also an actor known for playing several roles), I was incredibly intrigued at the idea of a film where several people all play variations of one role. It took me a while to finally get to I’m Not There, but it immediately became one of my favorite films. A few short years later and I would watch Velvet Goldmine in a class just before catching Carol in theaters.

Three surefire masterpieces and Todd Haynes will forever have a special place in my heart. Wonderstruck quite literally had me at hello.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the plot, and not much of it was even revealed beforehand. The basic premise from Variety said “<!– [if lt IE 9]>/w/load.php?debug=false&lang=en&modules=html5shiv&only=scripts&skin=vector&sync=1<![endif]–>The film interlaces two stories set fifty years apart, switching frequently between them. Each tells the story of a child’s quest. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) runs away from her father’s New Jersey home to find her mother/idol, the actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In 1977, recently orphaned Ben (Oakes Fegley) runs away from his Minnesota home in search of his father.”

It is important to note that Millicent Simmonds and her character are deaf and that the production put a lot of effort into making the portrayal of deafness and American Sign Language appropriate and respectful. Personally, I don’t know much about sign language, so I can’t say for sure how well it’s done, but it certainly seemed correct to an outsider like me.

Speaking of Simmonds, her portion of the film is a stunning black and white silent film, with very few touches of sound effects to emphasize the actions and moods of other characters around her. There aren’t any traditional title cards, but characters who talk to Simmonds frequently use a notepad back and forth. Even without that, it’s still pretty clear what is going on between characters at all times in this segment.

The beginning of the other segment starts off a little rocky, as young Fegley (perhaps most known for the Pete’s Dragon remake) is required to do almost all of the heavy lifting for quite some time. Now on the scale of child actors, he’s pretty good, but there’s still a threshold of how much of a film they can carry. Michelle Williams is able to lay the groundwork for why we care about these characters at the top, but her character doesn’t stick with us for the whole film.

This is a MINOR SPOILER, so just skip to the next paragraph if you’re very cautious. Julianne Moore plays a role in both sections of the film, but I won’t reveal the character. My basic point is that I think every film should have multiple Julianne Moore roles, though I hear it didn’t really help out Suburbicon

As we begin to connect the two sections of the film, it gets better as each scene progresses. Not only does the film like a cousin of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo because of the story (both films are based on books from author Brian Selznick), but the wonderful production design is also reminiscent. Edward Lachmann is a name I’ve had on my brain ever since his work on Carol, which made me claim that any individual frame of that film could be hung in a gallery, and his work here is just as strong.

Carter Burwell’s score (also a name I know because of Carol, sorry that it’s such a beautiful film that I can’t stop thinking about) paints the mood so effortlessly without telling the audience exactly what to feel. It might not be considered a standout score by the end of the year, but it’s absolutely worth your time to consider.

Wonderstruck may not be the most exciting or obvious choice for a Todd Haynes film, but with it’s use of timeline jumping, it’s just as experimental as his other films. He has only made one film that I didn’t particularly care for (and plenty of other people do, so it’s not even a “bad” film), and Wonderstruck fits in perfectly among his list of beautiful stories.

Also, I adore the idea of a Hugo and Wonderstruck double feature for children, if you expect them to like these sorts of films. Give it a shot.

Wonderstruck: 8/10

Nick Potter

Co-founder of The Filmsmiths. Degree in Broadcast & Cinematic Arts with a minor in Cinema Studies from Central Michigan University. Pretty much the barbecue sauce of people but I'm doing my best.

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