Todd Haynes returns with what may be his most mainstream film yet, Wonderstruck. Or perhaps it’s that this is as mainstream as Haynes gets, with his strange juxtapositions and nuances interests still on full display. It’s a whole different kind of ambition for one of our most ambitious filmmakers, and perhaps daring to make a movie with children in mind that neither panders nor plays by the children’s movie rule book. Haynes often recalls his previous work with new films, and Wonderstruck recalls his most structurally inventive but least accessible efforts, Poison and I’m Not There. The pairing of unexpected approach from an unexpected voice telling this particular story makes Wonderstruck a very special film.
The film alternates between two New York City-set stories of children, one a deaf girl in the 1920s and the other a newly orphaned boy fifty years later. The former half, featuring a captivating Millicent Simmonds as Rose, plays out like the silent films she obsesses over, beautifully rendered in Ed Lachman’s cinematography and Carter Burwell’s immense score. Oakes Fegley as Ben leads the latter, with less creative flourishes from Haynes and team as Ben’s narrative drives the two stories together. Julianne Moore stars in both halves, first as a silent movie star and then as a mysterious woman lurking in a museum.
Wonderstruck meanders a bit both in it’s repetitive pacing and museum ponderings. While it is often most intellectually arresting when it subtly examines the personal impact of art and innovation, the overlong middle act stretches the film so that those moments don’t connect to one another quite as deeply. Though it’s commendable for Haynes to attempt a story of and for children, he doesn’t prove to be the most at directing child performances here. For once, Haynes allows his film to get a bit mired in its own beauty.
But the emotional underpinnings of Haynes delicate construction here cannot be understated. What could have been a rarified exercise like the museum it depicts, Haynes frequent collaborators like Lachman and costume designer Sandy Powell give Wonderstruck an approachable texture. Burwell is doing some of his best work here, immersive, clanging, and intuitive. As much as the film is immaculate in its production values, the most care and consideration on the screen is the patience with which Haynes stages the film’s emotional beats.
The film itself is unimposing, but its reveals are quite moving indeed: the banners outside Rose’s movie house announcing “Sound is Coming!”, the terrifying sound design that meets Ben during calamity, and a final reveal that is wholly satisfying if not surprising. With a few dips, Wonderstruck is gorgeous as an entire experience.