“Wonderstruck,” the latest film from queer auteur Todd Haynes, is a visual masterpiece that will surely be a favorite this awards season. Like his earlier movies, (“Velvet Goldmine,” “Carol,” “Far From Heaven” and the HBO miniseries of “Mildred Pierce”), the movie is an indelible delight for the senses. It’s also a tonic for the heart.
The movie is based on the richly illustrated young adult novel by openly gay author Brian Selznick, who also wrote the screenplay. His earlier novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” was the basis for the delightful film “Hugo.” Haynes and Selznick tell two interwoven stories that come together in a magical and moving finale you have to experience for yourself.
The first story starts in Hoboken, N.J., in October, 1927. A young deaf girl named Rose Kincaid (played by the magnificent deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) is bored and lonely at home, stifled by her over-protective father. She runs away to New York City to see her favorite actress, silent film star Lillian Mayhew (a delicious Julianne Moore), who is rehearsing for a new Broadway play.
The second story starts in Gunflint Lake, Minn., in June 1977. After the death of his mother (Michelle Williams), Ben Wilson (Oakes Fegley) is sent to live with his relatives. In a book about the “Cabinet of Wonders” left behind by his mother, he finds a clue to his father’s identity: a bookmark from Kincaid’s Books in New York City. With money from his mother’s rainy-day fund, he heads to the city to track him down.
Both children end up at the wonderful Museum of Natural History. Avoiding the attention of watchful security guards and each in their own era, they are entranced by the lifelike dioramas, make wishes on the massive meteorite Ahnightito, and are awed by the amazing exhibits in the “Cabinet of Wonders.”
Working closely with Director of Photography Ed Lachman and Editor Affonso Gonçalves, Haynes uses two very different visual styles to tell the stories. Rose’s story is shot in black and white and even includes scenes from the Lillian Mayhew weepie “Daughter of the Storm.” It’s worth noting that Rose’s favorite movie theater is about to be renovated for the opening of “The Jazz Singer,” the first “talkie,” a movie that would change the course of Hollywood history and would profoundly change the movie-going experience for the deaf community.
Ben’s story is told in vibrant color and his adventures through Times Square are seen in a gritty urban style that echoes classics from the 1970s like “The French Connection” and “Taxi Driver.” Both eras are lovingly recreated in amazing detail by production designer Mark Friedberg and award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell.
Haynes jumps back and forth between time periods with supple and charming dexterity. The cuts are never predictable and the stories illuminate each other in surprising and unexpected ways. When both children are exploring the museum, the interplay between the two periods is fascinating as Haynes and his colleagues explore how the museum has and hasn’t changed over time.
The acting is excellent. Julianne Moore joyously chews up scenery right and left, whether appearing onscreen, onstage or as the towering diva in her dressing room. Oakes Fegley is solid and sympathetic as Ben. But the real find of the movie is Millicent Simmonds. Her winsome face is extremely expressive and she beautifully captures the rhythms of the classic silent cinema.
While the movie is excellent, there are some noticeable flaws. The role of Ben’s friend Jamie (Jaden Michael) is sadly underwritten; it’s possible that the book rounds out the character more fully. More seriously, the pacing occasionally lags and the film could use some cutting. It loses some steam once the impressive novelty wears off and it goes on for a little too long after the big reveal.
Nonetheless, “Wonderstruck” is a film well-worth seeing especially on the big screen.