To say that Todd Haynes’ latest feature is far-fetched would be an understatement, as would calling it a heartstring-tugger. Wonderstruck embraces these family movie tropes wholeheartedly and unabashedly, and that’s been the biggest critique lobbed its way so far by audiences and critics alike.
However, Wonderstruck is just as magical and gorgeous as it is occasionally narratively clumsy. It’s meant for families to enjoy together, while still being an unapologetically artistic, fully-realized vision. It’s the kind of movie that sets an example of how powerful a genre can be when it’s treated with the proper tone and respect. Just because a family movie is emotional doesn’t mean it can’t be an artistic delight.
Wonderstruck is a tale of two children who live in very different times but share very similar stories, as they run across the country to seek out family and a place to belong in New York City. Perspective flips back and forth between these two children, as does the film’s style. As we travel with Rose, we’re treated to a beautiful black-and-white silent film that’s led by a stunning first-time performance by Millicent Simmonds. Meanwhile, through Ben (played by Oakes Fegley, who’s best known for his role in David Lowery’s remake of Pete’s Dragon), we see the vibrant, dangerous world of New York City in the 1970s. These interwoven tales are the sort of idealistic fiction that could make the average adult roll their eyes, while their inner child eats it up and wishes for that kind of bravery and independence.
Adapted for the screen by the novel’s original author, Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck’s script fumbles every once in a while, and starts to turn into those aforementioned tropes a little too hard, but Todd Haynes capably and quickly steers it back on course. Haynes consistently makes directorial choices that are so starkly his own that his style shines through the script and makes Wonderstruck his unique creation. Make no mistake, this isn’t a Selznick adaptation. It’s a Todd Haynes film, and a great one at that.
The unique feeling is thanks to the contributions from regular collaborators. Ed Lachman creates breathtakingly beautiful visuals with his lush 35mm photography that perfectly channels these two eras in which the tale is set. Combining his cinematography with some really immaculate period settings and costumes forms an unbelievably superb visual language. Similarly, Carter Burwell’s fascinating, exquisite score bounces effortlessly between the silent era music, that’s charming and full of fun musical cues, to much more serious modern sounds. It’s a diverse range of pieces, each as stunning and charming as the last. The music and imagery stir up that titular sense of wonder in the audience and invites us to dive into these worlds headfirst.
And that’s what makes Wonderstruck a real thing of beauty. Right now, it’s so easy to feel inundated with perpetually cynical media of all forms that leaves you down in the dumps, but to find something that can take you so easily back to a childlike state of marveling at the world is such a special thing. This sort of joyful film usually comes in the form of a duplicitous, cheaply-made movie that’s mainly motivated by ticket sales. Instead, Wonderstruck eschews that idea and crafts an imaginative, inventive film that’ll whisk away even the most stubborn hearts.