Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’ latest experiment in period filmmaking, is foremost a good challenge for bold viewers.
Exercising the cinematic processing muscles like few coherent films before it, the dual-storyline feature helps one appreciate films that don’t ask nearly as much of its audience while proving that there’s still room for modern directors to take great risks.
Based on the illustrated novel by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the script, Wonderstruck is comparable to Martin Scorsese’s take on the author’s Hugo in that it too has a flawed build-up to a majestic payoff bursting with creativity, raising the question of why such inventive energy wasn’t present before.
Until then, Haynes spiritedly hops between the lives of two solitary preteens: Ben (Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon), struggling in 1977 Minnesota after the death of his mother Elaine (an underused Michelle Williams), and deaf Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds), doing her best to navigate 1927 New York City with little help from her absent, Lillian Gish stand-in mother (Julianne Moore).
Reuniting his core technical team from 2011’s under-seen HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce — most importantly cinematographer Edward Lachman and production designer Mark Friedberg — the director switches to full silent-film mode for Rose’s B&W scenes, ably mimicking the era’s movies’ qualities with a significant boost from Carter Burwell’s background jazz score.
While the immersion into deafness is often difficult, much information may thankfully be inferred through body language, though the bravely intentional lack of subtitles and prominence of chatty side characters are likely to prove trying to all but the most talented lip readers.
For a while, Ben’s portion of Wonderstruck remains talky, but after an accident gives him the same impairment as Rose, he heads to Manhattan in search of the father he’s never met and the paths of the two youths separated by half a century begin to overlap in ways both intriguing from a plot standpoint and frustrating from the comprehension and storytelling angles.
Realistic as Ben's struggles to adjust to his compromised communication are, having him read things aloud translates poorly to the screen, as does the choice to have his new friend Jamie (Jaden Michael) speak, then scribble what he just said onto a notepad for Ben and viewers to see.
Fortunately, the period detail of both timelines is so well conceived and presented that it merits billing behind the gifted Fegley and Simmonds. And adaptation missteps aside, first-time screenwriter Selznick manages to keep the plot churning enough to discourage full mental check-out, maintaining the core mysteries of the extent to which the protagonists are connected and the identity of Ben’s father.
Working in a second role for longtime Haynes collaborator Moore — oddly not the first time she’s seen such duality in the past month — Wonderstruck indeed delivers satisfying answers to these questions, despite concerns otherwise.
In turn, it may not be the film for which most viewers were hoping from the director and his talented cohorts, but it nonetheless feels like precisely the one Haynes set out to make.
Grade: B-minus. Rated PG. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Roadside Attractions)