Starring Julianne Moore. Rated G.
Super-stylish director Todd Haynes is better known recently for highfalutin, if camp-tinged, fare like Carol and the Mildred Pierce miniseries. But his first (shortish) feature, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, was told entirely with Barbie dolls, and there’s a strong element of play to his work. So it didn’t seem too unlikely for him to take on a youth-aimed story like Wonderstruck, adapted by Brian Selznick from his own children’s book.
More worrisome was the fact that Selznick also penned the story that turned into Martin Scorsese’s insufferably sticky Hugo, and, in fact, many of that period piece’s gooiest features are repeated here, albeit with more variation of tone and mood—even if everyone keeps ending up at various museums, cinemas, and curio shops presented as repositories of all worthy human endeavour.
The new film operates on two time tracks, one set in the summer of 1977 and the other exactly 50 years earlier. The dominant and more “modern” part centres on Ben (Oakes Fegley), a rural Minnesota boy who has grown up fatherless and then loses his librarian mother (Michelle Williams, in flashbacks) just after his 12th birthday.
The other, set at the end of the silent-movie era, involves a same-aged Hoboken, New Jersey, girl who happens to be deaf. She’s played by Millicent Simmonds—who in real life is hearing-impaired—in a subplot told in black and white with no dialogue. The seemingly motherless girl is stuck on a famous actor (Haynes regular Julianne Moore) glimpsed in magazines and on marquees. In fact, she finds her when she runs away to nearby New York City.
Ben, too, heads to then-grungy Manhattan in search of that absent daddy but not before suffering from a freak accident that likewise leaves him deaf. This twist further connects him to the other story but otherwise has almost no bearing on events—one of numerous coincidences, most of which are unnecessary and require laborious voice-over explanations at the end.
The kids are all right, and it’s obvious that Haynes enjoys the juxtaposition of radically different film styles (both shot by the great Ed Lachman), with the 1920s material supported by Carter Burwell’s purposefully melodramatic music and the faded-Kodachome sections beefed up by wah-wah guitars and David Bowie songs. (One of the latter gets a Langley Schools Music Project treatment over the credits).
The final act includes a massive diorama and small, antique-style puppets as a bonus. But the constant cutting back and forth for two hours grows tiresome, and there’s nothing in the script to match the wonder of what’s on-screen. At least when Ben Stiller’s around, museums come to life. Here, they just sit there and look important.