One of Todd Haynes‘ greatest gifts is the ability to transport viewers to different eras of the past while somehow making the events unfolding on screen feel like they are happening at that exact moment right in front of you. Whether it’s 1940’s Los Angeles in Mildred Pierce, the 1950’s of Greater New York in Carol or the 70’s chic of Velvet Goldmine’s London, he makes sure his characters inhabit those eras instead of wearing them like window dressing or a bad Halloween costume. You rarely if ever feel you’re watching a Hollywood production team recreate a textbook period look in a Haynes film and, frankly, that is no small feat. Impressively, Haynes and his cinematic collaborators have outdone themselves in that particular department with his latest effort, Wonderstruck, which debuted today at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.
Set in two time periods fifty years apart, Wonderstruck follows 12-year-olds Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Rose (Millicent Simmonds) as they explore New York City in 1977 and 1927 respectively. Adapted by Hugo’s Brian Selznick from his own novel, the story begins in Minnesota where Ben is dealing with the sudden passing of his mother (Michelle Williams) and having flashbacks to pestering her about who and where his mysterious father is. When a freak lightening accident causes Ben to lose his hearing, he impulsively decides to escape his hospital room and catches a ride on a bus across the country to Manhattan to find his dad. His plan? Start with the only clue he has, a NYC bookstore bookmark his father had left Ben’s mother years before.
Rose, conversely, is a lonely girl, living a sheltered existence in Hoboken, N.J. with a father upset his daughter isn’t taking her lessons to learn lip reading more seriously. She is identified as deaf early on and, unlike Ben, her story is distinctly chronicled in black and white without any sound beyond a musical score. Eventually we learn her mother, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), is a famous silent era movie star and Broadway actress. As Ben races to New York by bus Rose runs away from her father and jumps on a ferry into the city hoping to watch her mother rehearse on stage. Ms. Mayhew is furious that Rose put herself in danger by coming into New York on her own and returns to rehearsal after locking Rose in her dressing room. The deceptively sly Rose soon escapes and makes her way to the American Museum of Natural History where her gaze becomes engrossed by the now legendary dioramas of wildlife on display.
Ben arrives in New York believing the bookstore to be closed and quickly becomes friends with the similarly aged Jamie (Jaden Michael) whose father happens to works at the same museum. As they explore the exhibits Ben and Rose’s stories begin to converge and, eventually, the enigma of Ben’s father, how he met his mother and Rose’s connection to all of this finally comes to light.