Wonderstruck (2017)

  • Time: 117 min
  • Genre: Drama | Family | Mystery
  • Director: Todd Haynes
  • Cast: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams


The story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from fifty years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection.

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  • Wonderstruck, the new film from Todd Haynes adapted from Brian Selznick’s 2011 novel, tells of two parallel pilgrimages and, as such, functions as two films in one.

    The first takes place in 1977 in Gunflint, Minnesota where twelve-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) is dealing with the death of his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams), a free-spirited librarian who is warm and loving but has always been evasive when it comes to telling him the identity of his father. Ben is adrift, taking solace in the things he collects, but wondering who he is and where he belongs. One night, as he looks through his mother’s belongings, he comes upon Cabinets of Wonder, a museum catalogue in which he finds a bookmark from Kincaid Books in New York City with the following inscription: “Elaine, I’ll wait for you. Love, Danny.” Minutes after the discovery, Ben is struck by lightning and loses his hearing, but he decides to run away to New York to find the bookstore, where he believes he may reunite with his father.

    Meanwhile, fifty years earlier, in Hoboken, New Jersey, there is a young girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds), also 12, who lives with her reprimanding father (James Urbaniak). She finds comfort in the cinema of the silent era, though that will soon be gone with the arrival of talking pictures, and, in particular, the fabled Hollywood actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). The deaf Rose decides to brave the ferry to New York so she can go to the theatre where Lillian is in rehearsals for a play.

    In both instances, Ben and Rose end up in the American Museum of Natural History; she to track down her older brother Walter, whilst Ben befriends Jamie (Jaden Michael), whose father works at the museum. How their individual journeys culminate and how they journey towards one another provides Wonderstruck with a classic mystery framework but, in many respects, Haynes seems less interested in that than in meticulously crafting the narrative, having cinematographer Ed Lachman recreate the aesthetics of the two time periods, and adhering almost exclusively to the cinematic conditions of those eras. Thus, Rose’s section is in sumptuous black-and-white, with no audible spoken dialogue, and with written notes that act as intertitles. Ben’s portion, meanwhile, evokes the seedy grime of 1970s’ New York with almost startling verisimilitude.

    Yet for all the rigorously recreated wonder and a stunner of a scene that explains the connectivity of the two narratives, there’s something slightly lacking. It may be that every element of the film is so deliberately designed that it actually undermines whatever emotional resonance there is to be had. Nevertheless, Wonderstruck does succeed as a piece of cinematic artifice that pays loving tribute to bygone times.

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