I seem to be at odds with most audiences on how we as a culture enjoy our Todd Haynes. Most people seem to prefer Haynes when he’s well-behaved, heaping ecstatic praise on his most straight-forward works like Far from Heaven & Carol. I’m much more into Haynes when he gets messy & experimental, like in the multimedia freakouts Poison & Velvet Goldmine. Considering that dissonance, I should have known better than to let the muted critical response to Haynes’s latest release deter me from seeing it big & loud when I had the chance, instead of sheepishly catching up with it months later upon its quiet streaming-platform release. Adapted from a children’s book by Brian Selznick (who also penned the source material for Scorsese’s Hugo, speaking of undervalued experiments from established auteurs), Wonderstruck is a deceptively well-mannered film that appeals to a younger audience in its tone, but formally sprawls into countless, ambitious directions. This film is just as fractured & mischievous as any of Haynes’s most out-there works, yet is thematically eager-to-please enough that its total lack of Academy Awards nominations feels like a deliberate injustice more than a harmless oversight (at the very least, it’s tied with mother! for being most over-looked in the Best Sound Editing category). I’d even argue it’s Haynes’s most impressive, satisfying work since Velvet Goldmine, which would make it his second-best film to date. If there’s one title I’m embarrassed to have not seen before filing my Best of 2017 list, it’s Wonderstruck, which only makes it all the more baffling why it was met with a series of yawns & shrugs instead of the rapturous adoration that was showered on the much more subdued Carol.
Two children, separated by 50 years and hundreds of miles, appear to be mysteriously linked in a shared destiny. They are both deaf, but do not speak sign language. Their parents are absent, but for wildly different reasons. They run away from home and are both drawn to the NYC Museum of Natural History for refuge. Their lives are temporally & geographically disparate, but supernaturally in sync, a mystery that untangles itself in intricate, multi-faceted ways as their stories converge in an unexpected (for them) shared space & time. In the stretch leading up to that convergence, the film busies itself contrasting the two adult worlds these out-on-their-own children perilously navigate. 1920s New York is framed with a traditionalist, black & white silent film palette, poisoning touchstones of Old Hollywood glamour with a distinct sense of NYC meanness. 1970s New York is a warm, sprawling mix of vibrant sounds & colors, even directly challenging the white hegemony of the earlier timeline by flooding the screen with PoC. Perhaps the reason I’m personally drawn to Wonderstruck is because the types of spaces that remain constant in both timelines & unite the two stories are the exact building blocks I’d use to construct an ideal universe: theaters, museums, libraries, bookstores, miniatures, etc. By the time the two deaf children’s parallel narratives converge in a whimsical, minutes-long stop motion sequence staged inside a meticulous miniature model of New York City, I was just completely broken down into pieces by the gorgeous, used book store universe Haynes (and Selznick) had constructed. It was only a kindness on his part to build me back up with the awe-inspiring tenderness of the film’s impossibly satisfying climax, a sweeping, meticulously calculated convergence of worlds that tied so many ethereal narrative threads together so concisely that it left me . . . well, you know the title.
Wonderstruck is far from the first film to attempt to revise & modernize “silent” filmmaking on an epic scale. Where it departs from past works like The Artist & Singin’ in the Rain, however, is in Haynes’s deliberately messy style as a collage artist. The sound design in this film is incredible, weaving effortlessly from immersion in the deaf children’s aural POV’s to the glam rock tapestries of Velvet Goldmine to the piano-accompanied silent era when the deaf & people with functional hearing had much more in common in their shared experiences at the movies. Haynes gleefully indulges in the most obviously attractive aspects of constructing a silent-era throwback, especially in scenes where he films & photographs his long-favorite collaborator Julianne Moore as a classic Old Hollywood starlet. The “silence” in the film’s choices of medium is much more than a question of aesthetic, however, as it’s distinctly, inextricably a part of its narrative DNA. For obvious reasons, Wonderstruck details at length the array of communication breakdowns that can cause havoc in a variety of interpersonal relationships once sound is removed from the communicators’ toolbox. The modes of communication the children and their friends & family must employ to get around their sound/language barrier are almost as varied as the visual media Haynes employs to communicate with his own audience: stop-motion, 3D models, silence, monologue, intensely colored lighting, black & white filmmaking, rapid fire montage, calm children’s film hangouts, etc. He even cast a deaf actress for the film’s lead to aid in the accuracy & immersion in the fractured narrative (Millicent Simmonds, who is also scheduled to appear in the upcoming horror film A Quiet Place). The movie’s silent era throwback vibe is far from empty nostalgia feel-goodery, even if it’s just as openly celebratory of the medium as simpler, more joyful works.
My favorite review of Wonderstruck I’ve seen so far was a blurb from John Waters’s Best of 2017 list, where he recommends parents show it to their kids as a kind of intelligence test, explaining “If your small-fry like the film, they’re smart. If they don’t, they’re stupid.” It’s a glib review that flippantly disregards questions of preference & taste, but it’s one I can’t help but agree with. In fact, I’d expand that uncalled-for insult to the adults who are bored or unmoved by the film as well. Complains that Wonderstruck is emotionless or “gets lost” in the Museum of Natural History baffle me. I can’t imagine a scenario where this many people don’t fall under the spell of Hayne’s kaleidoscopic mix of New York City models made entirely out of 1920s glamour magazines, Guy Maddin-style nightmare imagery of layered wolves, glam rock daydreams about stargazing, and so on. It’s unfair to fault anyone for not emotionally connecting with Wonderstruck’s children’s film tone or its narrative about deaf, fearless children who refuse to be treated like inconveniences by their reluctant adult guardians. That kind of subjective response is obviously personal, but people understanding the film as anything less than a technical marvel in fractured, multi-media storytelling makes me question what planet I’m living on.
To be fair, though no response to Wonderstruck could possibly be as idiotic as the one it’s getting from its own distributors. Amazon Studios is making no plans to release Wonderstruck on physical media, which is tragically ironic, considering the film’s obsession with the archival & preservation of physical objects. Todd Haynes’s latest work of ambitiously sprawling genius may be obsessed with libraries & museums, but Amazon’s going out of its way to make sure it never arrives in any such collections. Given the muted critical response to the film over the last few months, I’m afraid it might be lost in time to digital rot, which makes me want to cry over its delicate, misunderstood beauty all over again.