Todd Haynes’ vaguely spiritual YA adaptation, Wonderstruck, is so high quality that you can almost forgive it for being so boring. Precision-engineered to be a source of inspiration and teaching, this is the kind of tasteful drama to the adults who think that children should love. But it is adults who will appreciate its rate of production of the design and of the structural balance, while the younger viewers will ask, rightly, why nothing happens. Wonderstruck draws heavily on the film fallacy, made popular by Paul Haggis’s 2004 crash Crash, that a couple of disappointing stories seem to deep, if you link the two together.
Still, the conception mentioned above and the structure are impressive. Based on the illustration for a novel by Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck intertwines two plot strands, one set in 1977 and one in 1927, but it two with a deaf child on a whimsical quest in New York. In 1977 scenes, the child is 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon), a mop-topped Minnesota boy who has never met his father, and the sad mother (Michelle Williams in a cameo) has been killed in a car accident. (Theoretically, it is possible that Williams will be a day of playing a character who leads a happy life, but today is not that day.)
Determined to discover her father’s identity, Ben asks his aunt to tell him. No, only a joke. What he does is, of course, is poking around in his dead mother’s belongings until he found an old hardcover about ” cabinets of wonders’. The bookmark to the inside, which is a second-hand bookstore in New York, has a message to her mother, scribbled on it – the kind of teasing index that rotates in the fiction, much more than in real life. But just when Ben is calling the library, the telephone line is struck by lightning – wonderstruck, if you will – and it seems as if the film will become a blockbuster about a super-hero called Phone-Boy. No luck. In fact, Ben’s ears are damaged by the electric shock, but that doesn’t stop him, sneak away from the hospital and on a bus in New York.
It is as hard-edged as a spoonful of ice cream
A similar odyssey is made by a young girl, Rose (Millicent Simmons, a brilliant in the eyes of the discovery), 50 years earlier. She has been deaf since birth, and Haynes steps of his adventures in black-and-white silent film, without dialogue, although with lots and lots and lots of Carter Burwell music. Pink love silent films, in particular those featuring Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), therefore it is a poignant moment when she sees a banner outside a cinema by announcing that he will soon show his films. The idea that the advent of the talkies must have been a tragedy for some deaf people is fascinating, but Wonderstruck does not dwell on it. It is simply used as a pretext for the Pink to go on her own trip to New York, where Lillian is due to perform on Broadway.
Haynes is a master of period detail, as he has proven in the Measure of Heaven and Carol, which premiered at Cannes two years ago. And his detailed, expansive recreations of not one but two of New York city, the times are extraordinary. Its 1977, in particular, seems so authentic in his clothes, his agitation and his rubbish-strewn streets that Haynes may well have had access to a time machine. Remember, it is unlikely that the true New York has never been as user-friendly as it is up to Ben and Rose. As hard-edged as a spoonful of ice cream, Wonderstruck has two hearing-impaired runaways wandering the Big Apple, and they suffer nothing worse than pickpocketing them. And even then, the pickpocket is generous enough to steal the money and leave the wallet.
The film becomes a lecture entitled ” Retro things that young people should learn about’
Really gooey center of the film is not revealed, however, until the two heroes of the tour of the city, the American Museum of Natural History, at the same point in their journey. It is interesting to see how the museum has changed in the interval of a half-century – out go the glass case, just the mood lighting – but Wonderstruck marveled at this for so long that the parallel plots come to a standstill. They never have enough to restart. Instead of gripping us to the question of who Ben’s father is, and what it has to do with the Rose, the film becomes a lecture entitled “Retro things that young people should learn about”, its main subjects of museums, silent films, second-hand, books, and cardboard models. Indeed, young people are not only supposed to be learning about these things. They are supposed to be blown away by their grandeur transcendent, which is a sure sign that Selznick has never been stuck in a museum with a school party of bored 12 years.
Perhaps some viewers will be carefully transported. Selznick has written and called The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which became the twinkly Martin Scorsese’s the history lesson, Hugo, and if you have been spellbound by that, then Wonderstruck can work its magic on you. It might also appeal to fans of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which has sent a child on a quaint coincidence-filled New York city treasure hunt. But other viewers will have the impression that Wonderstruck is more twee and less touching than it is meant to be. Haynes ” cabinet of wonders is finely carved, inlaid and painted, but it has little on the inside.