The films of Todd Haynes revel in surfaces but thrive in the margins.
The films of Todd Haynes revel in surfaces but thrive in the margins. In his work, aesthetics assume emotions like fear, desire, longing and hope, and the characters strive to locate meaning in the folds between art and beauty. Children, with their unspoken needs and joyful attraction to sound, color and movement, seem like the ideal subject for Haynes, and yet it’s taken him seven films to enter their world. Wonderstruck, an adaptation of the Brian Selznick book, is a mesmerizing and preternaturally mature film about the connections children make with their memories, their place in life, and with each other. It follows two separate plotlines with two distinct stylistic approaches that gradually collapse into a single overarching story, crossing generations with immaculate craft and the uplifting sensation of emotion overcoming the physical world. Like so much of childhood, it’s an experience better felt than explained.
Adapted by Selznick himself and bound to the creation of museums in the same way his Hugo is to the creation of cinema, the script returns multiple times to a quote by Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Seemingly an endorsement of solidarity and connection between people in tough situations, the quote has a more prophetic connotation here. The story follows two deaf pre-teens—Rose (Millicent Simmonds) in 1927; Ben (Oakes Fegley) in 1977—as they attempt to chart their personal histories under the roof of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Although they enter the museum under similar circumstances—they’re both on the search for absent parental figures—and suffer from the same affliction, their worlds are drastically different. In homage to the silent cinema of the era, Rose’s story is presented in black and white and without diegetic sound, accompanied by a bouncy musical score that helps punctuate emotion. Meanwhile, Ben’s scenes are reminiscent of New Hollywood, complete with handheld camerawork, sepia-tinged cinematography and a period soundtrack.
As Haynes intermittently cross-cuts between each section, it becomes clear his aesthetic approach represents more than simple stylistic choices. Deaf since birth and unfairly cooped up in her Hoboken home by her overprotective father, Rose spends her time building paper models of the massive skyline she can see just beyond the Hudson River; sometimes she manages to sneak out and take in a film at her local theater, where her unique world is reflected back to her in the images she sees on screen. It’s a gorgeous representation of Rose’s unique world, and the perfect way to illustrate the extent to which some people feel defined by what makes them different from others. Ben’s experience is marked by newness: only recently deaf—he experiences a freak accident while poring over the belongings of his recently deceased mother (Michelle Williams)—he arrives in New York from his small Minnesota town with a tough attitude that belies his fear, and cinematographer Ed Lachman’s street-level images impart the excitement and spontaneity of visiting a big city for the first time, specifically while deaf.
Structurally, Haynes approaches Wonderstruck like a piece of music. While the stories unfold differently, the director makes sure to note their rhythmic similarities without making the connections too obvious, and despite their aesthetic difference, they harmonize beautifully. A lot of that has to do with the dual lead performances. Simmonds is particularly captivating, and her deafness in real life no doubt feeds into her performance, which is natural and genuine in a way that transcends simple acting. She truly lives in this world. While her sequences are the most memorable and moving, they wouldn’t have the same impact without the context provided by Ben and his journey, in which he’s accompanied by new friend and de facto interpreter, Jamie (Jaden Michael), and meets a woman (Julianne Moore) who holds a key to his past. Thus, the cross-cutting serves as more than just an aesthetic device; more articulately, it’s an emotional imperative.
The feeling of emotions and experiences echoing through time and space is anchored by the aforementioned setting, which becomes less of a location and more of a state of being as the film unfolds. The American Natural History Museum has been a character in indie comedy-drama (The Squid and the Whale), big-budget fantasy (A Night at the Museum) and auteurist undertakings (The Royal Tenenbaums), and here, Haynes places its unique characteristics squarely within the film’s thematic framework. Wonderstruck acknowledges that children, like all of us, aspire to control their own destiny, a process that often feels curatorial. The film suggests our lives are museums of our own creation, filled with the memories of those we love and the wonders of the world around and beyond us, culled from experiences shared both in present day and across time. Haynes’ breathtaking final sequence is somewhat hampered by an expository approach that unfolds better on the page than it does on the screen, but it nevertheless locates the perfect visual expression of what it means to not only look at the stars, but transform them into our own constellations.