As a nifty exercise in paying homage to certain filmmaking styles of the 1920s and 1970s in parallel stories seemingly destined to meet at some point, Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” is quite the achievement.
A lush and booming and period piece-appropriate score by Carter Burwell accompanies the dialogue-free, expertly faded, black and white sequences set in 1927.
These scenes take us back in time. Not just in subject matter, but in the very tone and personality of the storytelling.
When we’re in 1977, the screen pops with sun-dappled daytime oranges and browns, and nighttime shades of greens and reds and blues. The soundtrack pulsates with ’70s classics such as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Deodato’s jazz-funk-synth take on “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (which hasn’t been used to such great effect in a film since Peter Sellers’ Chance the Gardener first journeyed into the outside world in 1979’s “Being There”).
For Haynes, the director of visually stunning but relatively chilly-to-the touch films such as “Carol” and “Far From Heaven,” this is arguably as close as he’s come to tackling mainstream, audience-friendly fare — but when we get to the payoff moments, I can easily envision a scenario where there won’t be a moist eye in the house.
We’re too busy thinking, “Well played!” to feel a genuine tug of the heart.
“Wonderstruck” is based on the novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, whose “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” In a deliberate fashion that presents myriad mysteries and waits a LONG time to deliver any payoffs, Haynes alternates between two stories.
The 1927 thread centers on Rose (the wonderfully expressive Millicent Simmonds), a deaf little girl living with her strict and overprotective father in Hoboken, New Jersey. Rose is obsessed with the famous New York stage and film actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), and one day she runs off to New York City to find Lillian. Rose’s adventures eventually take her to the American Museum of Natural History, and we’ll leave it at that.
Now let’s switch to 1977, where young Ben (Oakes Fegley) lives with his aunt in Gunflint, Minnesota. Ben’s mother (Michelle Williams) has recently died in a car crash, before she ever revealed the identity of Ben’s father.
When Ben finds a clue that could lead him to his dad, he sets out for New York — and HIS adventures eventually take him to the American Museum of Natural History.
Oh, and Ben has recently been struck deaf by a freak accident, so, like Rose in the New York of 50 years ago, he is often faced with nearly insurmountable challenges of communication as he tries to get to the truth.
So-called “cabinets of wonder” — enormous cabinets filled with all sorts of artifacts and clues to the past — play a prominent role in “Wonderstruck,” to the point where we begin to believe there’s going to be a supernatural element in these twin stories. (Especially when Moore shows up in both stories.) I’ll not reveal if the connection over a half-century is supernatural or timeline-logical, or somewhere in between.
It makes sense in the end. Well, MOST of it makes sense.
“Wonderstruck” is a smart and interesting and well-acted film.
We’re just never really struck with … wonder.
Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions present a film directed by Todd Haynes and written by Brian Selznick, based on his novel. Rated PG (for thematic elements and smoking). Running time: 115 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.