Todd Haynes is not the name that would come up when thinking about films for kids. His track record includes lofty, somber, eloquent, often mind-blowing material including the glam rock saga “Velvet Goldmine,” the dark suburban tale “Far From Heaven,” and the faux Dylan “biography” “I’m Not There.” That’s not to say that his newest, “Wonderstruck,” is actually meant for young moviegoers. In fact, it’s a very adult film, complex in story and emotions. But as an all-round viewing experience, it’s captivating and sometimes even whimsical, while still keeping a serious tale at its core. This is a great film for all ages, and will make excellent fodder for family conversation, as it’s about the institution of family. And it’s told through the eyes of children.
It’s comprised of two very different but parallel stories, about two different kids, each around 12-years-old, with the two stories set a half century apart, slowly, inexorably being drawn together.
Based on the Brian Selznick book of the same title (he also wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which became Martin Scorsese’s delightful “Hugo”), and scripted by Selznick, it opens in 1977 Minnesota, where young Ben (Oakes Fegley from “Pete’s Dragon”) is having horrific nightmares and trying to deal with the recent death of his mother (Michelle Williams in flashbacks), and wondering why she never told him anything about his long-absent dad.
Everything suddenly, and remarkably smoothly, shifts to black and white 1927 New Jersey, where young Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds), a loner, is keeping herself busy by making little paper boats, cutting photos out of movie magazines, and going alone to movie matinees, while trying to deal with her wealthy, very stern father. Mom is nowhere to be seen.
There are differences and similarities between the kids, and in what eventually become their missions. Rose is deaf. The scenes with her are silent. There are no voices, but there’s a beautiful and dramatic score by Carter Burwell. It’s subtly ironic that the cinema she goes to closes in order to be renovated for sound. Ben is emotionally troubled, but physically fine until, in an odd accident, he, too, goes deaf. We can hear voices and ambient sounds and the score in his scenes, but he can’t.
The film keeps shifting back and forth between these two sets of circumstances, following each of these kids as she runs away from home and he runs away from the hospital after his accident, with both of them heading to New York City, each on a search for a person that will help them deal with their unhappiness.
The title of the film refers to a book about how museums work, that Ben finds among his late-mother’s possessions. Inside it is a bookmark from the Kincaid Book Shop in New York, with a note to his mom from “Danny.” In the story happening 50 years earlier, the girl’s full name is Rose Kincaid.
Their arrivals in the big city reveal Manhattans of very different eras. Hers is busy and stark and, you’ll recall, black and white. His is busy and vibrant and eye-poppingly colorful. But their own similarities become more apparent. They’re both curious and innocent and really excited to be in this new environment.
This is a film that’s filled with coincidences. Realize that before sitting down to watch, and then just go with them. You know that these two stories somehow must merge into one, but the route taken is a circuitous, magical, imaginatively written one.
The kids don’t complete their journeys without some help. Ben, via his voice and a notepad, finds friendship and assistance from another young boy, Jamie (Jaden Michael). Rose is given some unexpected assistance from a kindly older fellow named Walter (Cory Michael Smith).
As they make their way through uncertainty, there are visits to the American Museum of Natural History (in both time settings), the Queens Museum of Art (now called the Queens Museum), and multiple appearances by that book found by Ben. There are also some terrific, if brief, performances by Julianne Moore, James Urbaniak, and Tom Noonan. As mentioned above, this is not what we would expect from Todd Haynes. It’s a film that’s unabashedly sentimental. You’ll float away at its end, feeling, like the title suggests, wonderstruck.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by Brian Selznick; directed by Todd Haynes
With Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Jaden Mitchell