‘Wonderstruck’ Review: Todd Haynes Brings Vintage New York to Life | Cannes 2017
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.
Haynes smartly uses Selznick’s script as a roadmap for unique cinematic and unexpected flourishes even when it might not have dictated it. Early on we join Rose in a silent movie theater as she takes in one of her mother’s melodramas, a film that finds Moore channeling silent era heroines such as Lillian Gish. When Ben arrives in Manhattan he explores a Port Authority Bus depot and the seedy underbelly of 42nd Street diligently recreated thanks to the exemplary detail of Haynes, production designer Mark Friedberg, cinematographer Ed Lachman and costume designer Sandy Powell. Their efforts bring 1920’s Manhattan to life with the same remarkable flair. Every extra walking down a sidewalk, every street corner and every building feels like it was plucked from a ‘20’s newsreel or ‘70s news report, but with Haynes’ deft eye to make it seem like you’re looking out your own window into another time.
There is also tenderness to the story that Haynes plays particularly close attention to. It’s the time spent in how Ben’s Aunt (Amy Hargreaves) tells him he’s deaf, Jamie teaching Ben the ASL alphabet or young Rose writing heartbreaking notes she sets a drift at the river’s edge. In another director’s hands these choices could be too sugar coated or maudlin, but Haynes has a delicate touch that goes against the grain to the material’s benefit.
Beyond Friedberg, Lachman and Powell, the film simply would not work without a beautiful score from longtime Haynes collaborator Carter Burwell. His compositions are the only soundtrack to a 1920’s storyline with no dialogue or sound effects. Haynes only mistake in this regard is having Burwell’s music implore sound effects like that of a silent film of that era (it’s simply a bit too much), but overall it’s hard to argue that it isn’t one of the most beautiful scores he’s composed in recent memory.
When the story and the actors can’t live up to the world Haynes has created for it is when Wonderstruck begins to fade a bit. Selznick’s script is intended to chronicle a mystery that will have kids hooked and early on it meanders in setting up both Rose and Ben’s backstories. Thankfully, Simmonds, who is hearing impaired in real life, is a captivating screen presence that could transfix an audience simply walking through a park and its even more enlightening to see a major character represented as deaf on the big screen (something that’s too far and in between). Moore, as always, is a godsend as she effectively plays three different roles including Rose at the age of 62. What holds the film back from its true potential, unfortunately, is Fegley.
No actor this young should be responsible for the complete artistic success of a movie, but Fegley often seems like the “Hollywood” studio child actor the film doesn’t need. While even his young co-stars can reach for a grounded emotional reaction to the events unfolding around them Fegley’s performance often feels forced and, markedly, flat. And when the film is reaching for an emotional climax to take the audience over the top, even in the presence of a game Moore and under Haynes’ direction he’s simply not up for it. It’s quite puzzling, but then you remember the eras Haynes has magically transported you into and that disappointment quickly fades away.
Wonderstruck opens in limited release on October 20th; this review is from the film’s debut at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.