“I need you to be patient with this story and read it slowly,” begins a crucial text found by a character late in Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’ adaptation of a 2011 YA novel by Hugo author Brian Selznick (who also scripts). It’s advice that could be applied to the film itself. Told across two timelines with, at first, no apparent connection to one another, the film demands careful attention and a willingness to surrender to its deliberate rhythms as it slowly reveals its story’s details and draws everything together in a final sequence as moving as anything you’ll see this year. But patience is necessary.
Starting with his feature debut, the 1991 film Poison, Haynes has drawn from freely from a broad array of filmmaking styles, remixing the approaches of the past to speak to the present. Sometimes his focus is narrow, as in the Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven. Lately, however, Haynes has been less specific. Neither Mildred Pierce nor Carol mimics a specific style, but both could only have been made by a director who’s watched broadly and drawn deeply from golden age Hollywood filmmaking.
With Wonderstruck he goes back even further. This isn’t a silent movie — though one character’s trip to a silent film give Haynes a brief opportunity to recreate one — but it’s deeply informed by the silent era. Dialogue takes a backseat to image and music, the latter courtesy of sweeping score by Carter Burwell that ranks among the composer’s best. It’s a sensory feast that deemphasizes the need to use words to tell a story.
There’s a practical reason for that in the story being told, too. In one strand of the film, a kid in 1977 Minnesota named Ben (Oakes Fegley, recently seen in Pete’s Dragon) mourns the recent death of his librarian mother (Michelle Williams). After a freak accident causes him to lose his hearing, he decides to run away to New York, following a clue found in a book he thinks might lead him to the father he never met.
In the other strand, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) experiences a different sort of discontent as a deaf girl in 1927 Hoboken. Her father (James Urbaniak), pressures her to succeed in school but she’d rather wander the town, watching silent films starring the glamorous Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore, a frequent Hayes collaborator who also plays another role) and dreaming of escape. In time, she too decides to head to New York, and to the same destination that will eventually draw to it 50 years later: the American Museum of Natural History.
As the film progresses, Haynes flits between the stories, each time revealing a little bit more about how they connect as his protagonists make their sometimes perilous way through the city. And in each, Haynes and and cinematographer Ed Lachman nod to the way each era has been captured on film, using rich black and white for the 1927 segments and ‘70s grit for the 1977 portions. It’s tremendously accomplished, but it also walks up to the line that all Haynes films threaten to cross. At times it seems overly studied. It’s a beautifully constructed film that occasionally feels like it wants to stir admiration above any other emotion, aspiring to capture the essence of one of the museum pieces that play such a central role in the movie. Even the placement of the ’70s street grit feels deliberate.
It never quite crosses that line, in part because of the cast. Fegley keeps his emotions close to the surface as a boy whose innate loneliness has been amplified, but not caused, by his recent losses. He gets able support later in the film from Jaden Michael as Jamie, a New York boy who recognizes a bit of himself in Ben’s isolation. But the revelation here is Simmonds, a young deaf actress making her debut and whose open, expressive face would have fit right into the silent age. Simmonds already has another role lined up in John Krasinski-directed A Quiet Place, which is due to be released next year. Smart producers should find even more for her to do.
While some stretches of the film feel a bit too crafted, and make viewers work to make connections, that all falls away in a final sequence in which Wonderstruck becomes yet another type of movie, one better experienced than described. When Burwell’s music swells as the strands start to come together and Haynes and Selznick fully reveal the ways in which Wonderstruck has woven its thematic and narrative threads together, it’s magnificent. The patience pays off.
Wonderstruck opens in limited release today, October 27, before expanding. For more, read our recent interview with Todd Haynes.