Wonderstruck doesn't care about your cynicism
It would be very easy to judge “Wonderstruck” on what it isn’t, rather than on what it is. It is not “Carol,” Todd Haynes’ previous film. That remains his best work. It’s also not “Hugo,” a Martin Scorcese film based on another book from the same author who created the work “Wonderstruck” comes from. It’s something different, but something wonderful all its own.
The rhyming stories of two deaf children in New York, a girl in 1927 and a boy in 1977, weave in and out of one another marvelously. The 1927 scenes are completely silent, and newcomer Millicent Simmonds (who is actually deaf) is delightful. Her scenes are the best in the film, but it’s up to Oakes Fegley (“Pete’s Dragon”) to move the plot forward.
Haynes gets a chance to write two love letters to New York, one to the pre-Depression era and another to the 70s. The setting, as it is in “Carol,” is as much a character as anyone we meet on screen. Whether you consider that a bug or a feature is up to you, but never let it be said the man doesn’t know how to dress a scene.
What makes “Wonderstruck” so charming is its belief life is meaningful, and the interactions we have with the world around us are all leading to something greater. Fegley’s 11-year-old Ben goes through two traumatic losses within the opening 10 minutes of the film: First, he loses his mother. Second, he loses his hearing. In spite of that, his life builds towards something positive.
Simmonds’ Rose, born deaf, and living with an overly protective father in Hoboken, N.J., runs away to New York to chase the skyscrapers she sees outside of her portrait window all day. Like Ben, who takes off from a hospital bed in Minnesota, she feels her life is destined for something more.
Where “Hugo” is all about film, “Wonderstruck” draws from museums. Much of the proceedings take place in the Museum of Natural History, which looks as large and foreboding as any of the skyscrapers in Manhattan. While much of Haynes’ work can feel academic, it works here became the central characters see everything around them as something to be awestruck by. They share Haynes’ vision: The world is something wonderful.
This is a film with a ceiling, in part because the source material is so faithfully followed. Maybe that’s okay. In a cynical world, with cynical films and cynical characters, there’s nothing wrong with slowing things down and being struck with wonder every once in awhile.