Hurtling aimlessly through space, a meteorite has no idea where it will land. On the journey to its unknown destination, the meteorite collides with other asteroids, flies by stars, and eventually breaks through an atmosphere to come crashing on the surface of an unknown planet. Yet, somehow, this meteorite that landed on Earth thousands of years ago winds up being donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1902. Once there, it serves as a uniting force for all who see and experience its beauty. Children and adults flock to it to, while reading the description of its journey to the hallowed halls of this renowned museum. This meteorite, for one reason or the other, has ended up in this museum in New York City for a purpose. It, though inanimate, has fulfilled its destiny and succeeded in finding its place in the universe. This, essentially, is what Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck is about. In 1927, a young girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) views the meteor, tries to draw it, and observes children throwing coins on top of the meteor. In 1977, a young boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) observes the same meteor as he runs about the museum with his friend Jamie (Jaden Michael). It is this meteor that symbolizes their journey of self-discovery and its home, a museum in New York City and the city itself, are what prove to be the unifying link between these two stories. A beautifully poetic work from Haynes of pure child-like and cinematic wonder, Wonderstruck is a film that stands as one of the most daring and unique films of the year.
Essentially, this is a film about the ties that bind us together, to our experiences, and to this life. It is a beautiful mosaic of images tying together the life of this young girl Rose in 1927 and the life of Ben in 1977. On a journey to find her mother, who is an actress, Rose runs away from home in Hoboken to go to New York City. Deaf and living with her constantly angry father, Rose idolizes her mother and tries to reunite with her. For Ben, his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams) has recently passed away. Living with his aunt and her family next door, Ben runs into his old house one night and begins to look through his deceased mother’s possessions. Among them is a book entitled “Wonderstruck”, written about curators and putting together a museum. Inside he finds a bookmark with a note from a man named “Danny”, who Ben assumes to be the father his mother refused to tell him about. Calling the number for the bookstore that is mentioned in the bookmark, Ben’s home is struck by a bolt of lightning that goes through the phone and robs Ben of his hearing. As he sits in the hospital, he decides to run away from Minnesota and take a bus to New York City to find the bookstore mentioned in the bookmark and, hopefully, find his father working at the store. For both Rose and Ben, their journey to New York City is one they embark upon with a fuzzy aim but they, like the meteorite they both view in the museum, just fly through the air until they eventually find their destination and their purpose through the invisible force that pushes us where we are intended to be.
Though Rose intended to find her mother, she learned that her mother was not who she thought she was and, so, she leaves to wander the city. For Ben, he found the address listed on the bookmark to be the home of nothing more than the closed storefront that once hosted the bookstore, thus he follows a kid who tried to tell him something all the way to the museum. It is in this museum – which the Wonderstruck novel describes to be a “cabinet of wonders” – that both of them find their purpose and the place/people that makes them the happiest. It is this “cabinet of wonders” that delivers them to their final destination of their journey of self-discovery, introducing them to a world of possibility and magic that they never could have imagined existed. It is the place that brings their mind to rest and proves to be the exact place they needed and were always intended to wind up.
The journey of self-discovery is a well-trodden concept in films by director Todd Haynes. As a gay man and a lover of all things cinema, Haynes’ frequently turns to this theme of self-discovery in his characters, likely due to his own need to find who he was and who/what made him happiest. It is this journey that Rose and Ben embark upon, but it is one also seen in Far from Heaven and Carol. In the former, a white woman in 1950s suburban America falls in love with a black man and the two must overcome the racism of their small town to bring themselves together. In Carol, a woman must similarly traverse the perils of 1950s society but this time in New York City and having to overcome homophobia as she tries to find her happiness with a woman who she, unexpectedly, comes to love. For both the women in Far from Heaven and Carol, their journey was fraught with peril and forced them to overcome the stereotypes and hatred of their time period. For both Rose and Ben, they are forced to overcome their own personal limitations, namely deafness and their distance from the city that holds the key to their happiness. In traversing this journey, they find those who make them happiest – just as with the women in Far from Heaven and Carol – and do so without regard for the pre-conceived notions of others as to what is best for them, what they should do, and where they should go. Rose defies her father and Ben defies his aunt in pursuing their journeys of self-actualization.
It is this similarity in their journey – coming to New York City against all odds and then the eventual linking of the two stories – that Haynes’ decision to parallel these two stories becomes so important. It, like much in the film, is intrinsically tied to space, stars, and meteorites. From the very beginning of the film, Haynes includes lines for Ben wondering if his father was an astronomer due to his love of the stars, a shot of Elaine looking up into a telescope, Elaine listening to “Major Tom” at night, and then a quote about how we are all in the gutter, but some of us choose to look at the stars. This constant focus upon the stars and outer space establishes Wonderstruck as, at least somewhat, tied to the stars with some symbolic meaning on what lies underneath. Ending the film with a shot of Rose, Ben, and Ben’s new friend Jamie, all looking up at the stars in 1977, further solidifies this tie. For Wonderstruck, this tie is truly connected to the film’s structure itself. Stars that we see are dead stars that burst long ago, yet they burn brightly when we see them. Thus, by looking at the stars, we look at the past. For Haynes, in making a film dripping with nostalgia and in a filmography possessing the same nostalgic inclinations, he is perpetually looking into the past. The film itself is set in both 1927 and 1977, forcing the audience to also look into the past.
For both of our lead characters, however, their looking into the past is far more personal and it is one that is first introduced by Elaine. In one of her few scenes, Elaine walks into Ben’s bedroom to give him a little gift and say goodnight and, as she walks to his bed, she casually looks into his telescope. A casual action that, in the moment, means very little. However, as it is tied to the closing shot of Rose and Ben looking into the same night sky, we learn that all are looking into the stars for somebody. It is the timelessness and the ability to look into the past that often makes star-gazing such a subtly beautiful action and it is no wonder that Wonderstruck opts to bring people together as they look into the past. They can see those who they lost, those whose loss they still mourn, connect in the same feeling of mourning, and connect in the love they feel for one another. It is this feeling of togetherness, this feeling of unity, this ability to reminisce, to feel nostalgia, to mourn, to love, to grieve, and to ultimately feel tied together by a hidden force bringing us together without our knowledge, that star-gazing and Wonderstruck brings to life. It is a film that is timeless, that is hopeful, that is dreamy, and that gorgeously captures the human experience and our own individual journeys to finding where we, amongst the sea of stars, are meant to be.
In structuring the film, Haynes makes the daring decision to create parallel stories of Rose’s journey and Ben’s. Set in 1927, Rose’s journey operates as a silent movie (but without title cards) as she herself is deaf and learning how to be deaf, thus when she cannot hear or understand neither can the audience. In 1977, Ben’s journey often feels like a film by Steven Spielberg, dripping with sentimentality and nostalgia as a kid embarks on a huge journey across the country. Yet, thanks to brilliant editing by Affonso Goncalves, the two timelines and distinctly different styles unite into one beautiful composition. The real highlight comes as the two run about in the Museum and both begin viewing the meteorite. Cross-cutting between the two before delivering an incredible match cut of Rose running from a guard and then Ben running as well, the moment defines the unity of the moment and just how much the statement “time is a flat circle” is represented in this film. Camera work from Edward Lachman, as it was in Carol, is exquisite. The green hues of Wonderstruck create a certain warmness as if the film were wrapping the viewer up in a love-filled embrace. However, it is the moments in which the disorientation of deafness is portrayed that the camera work really shines with quick cuts, swishing camera movements, and this feeling that the room is spinning, capturing the feeling of both Rose and Ben when their world is turned upside down and they must catch their bearings due to the disorientation they feel as things spiral out of control all around them.
Additionally, the score from Carter Burwell is often rapturous, but it is the sound effects and editing that makes the sound in this film commendable. The little silent movie touches as a man in a theater plays the piano to the action as Rose watches a silent film with her mom as the star or as Rose herself goes about her journey, Wonderstruck has all of these little touches that add the dramatic flair silent films communicate via sound. Instead of the crash of glass, we hear a little up-tick in the sound. As Rose is yelled at by her father, we hear the music get more frantic, ominous, and unsettling. Burwell’s ability to capture this is equally as important as Lachman’s ability to capture the visual aesthetic of silent films. Together, they create a great harmony in making the silent elements of the film feel like an authentic silent film, rather than a modern film attempting to mimic or honor the style. Spliced together with the more modern elements, Wonderstruck is able to wear these two unique hats and have them both fit, combining into the aforementioned gorgeous story and display of emotion.
As previously mentioned, Haynes is a filmmaker who is deeply indebted to nostalgia. In Velvet Goldmine, he threw back the clock and explored the rise of glam rock in the early 1970s. In Far from Heaven, he created a melodrama in the vein of a Douglas Sirk film that explored similar themes as Sirk’s glowing technicolor melodramas. In I’m Not There, he once again threw back the clock to explore the behind-the-scenes life of Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s. With Carol, he explored the relationship between two women in snow-covered New York City in 1950s. Now, with Wonderstruck he crafts a film that simultaneously explores 1920s and 1970s New York City, as well as the world around both. In the 1920s, Haynes shows a movie theater showing a silent film. As Rose walks out of the theater, she walks past a sign that alerts patrons to the fact the theater will be closed to install sound and promising the arrival of the first talkie film in the area. In the theater in which her mother performs, Rose sits back and watches the theatrical rehearsing with heavy make-up as the theater’s exterior advertises the appearance of silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Often, the camera of Lachman lingers on quaint details such as a storefront or a pharmacist stocking his shelves. In the museum, we see Rose run about looking at the exhibits and then see Ben in 1977 looking at some of those very same exhibits. For Ben, we see him raised in a warm and welcoming brown log cabin in rural Minnesota with snow all around him (creating much of the same feeling as in Carol) with the music of David Bowie filling its interiors. As he runs to New York City, Haynes’ camera lingers on the bodies of New Yorkers as they run about the city playing basketball in a park or kids just playing in streets with funky, 1970s music playing in the background. These touches and small aesthetic inclusions create a great parallel to the rest of Haynes’ work. As with those, his attention to detail pays off in creating the right aesthetic for these time periods, capturing their very essence and feeling.
Yet, it is not just this nostalgia that rises to the top in Wonderstruck. Rather, it is also its love letter to silent cinema, to museums, and to of course time periods that remain ever-present. Even scenes of the characters riding a bus cross-country feels like an homage to this bygone era of yesteryear. This comes as no surprise, given that the film is based upon a book and written by Brian Selznick, who also authored the original source material for Hugo. Turned into a film back in 2011 by Martin Scorsese, Hugo explores very similar themes as Wonderstruck with a young boy set apart from the world and meeting people who, against all odds, finally allow him to feel at home. A love-letter to innovation, creation, the work of George Méliès, and to train stations, Hugo is a film steeped in nostalgia and appreciation for the lives and minds of those that have long since left this Earth. With Wonderstruck, Selznick similarly creates a film that honors and embodies this nostalgia while still managing to be a deeply affecting and powerful work in its own right. The two film adaptations similarly capture this aesthetic with both adaptations being blessed with the right director to realize their potential. Here, for Haynes, it is in the story of self-discovery, of nostalgia, and of love/togetherness against all odds and obstacles, that makes him the man for the job. This aligning of a director’s inclinations and a source material’s intentions is what makes Wonderstruck such a cinematic wonder.
Where Wonderstruck may struggle in some viewers’ eyes is in how it prizes style over substance throughout. The main substance it offers is in the emotion and the thematic development of the film, and it would nearly impossible to describe the film as being plot-driven given the narrative progression taking a backseat to Haynes’ stylistic decisions. As a by-product, the plot can be rather thin and, at worse, disorienting and oddly incohesive at times. Though these moments work themselves out and come together to form a cohesive picture in the end, there are moments in this film that, at first, just do not gel with the moments right before. Though the film’s style and its emotion helps it to overcome this incredibly thin narrative, Wonderstruck is a film that has unsurprisingly divided audiences and it is hard to imagine this being the case for any reason other than its thin narrative. This is a film that is stylish and deeply sentimental, which can be off-putting for those who prefer a more defined and structured narrative.
A powerful film about finding where you belong as seen through the eyes of a pair of children, Wonderstruck is a powerful film from director Todd Haynes that serves as a tremendous follow-up to his masterpiece, Carol. Together, they establish Haynes as one of the finest directors working today. If nothing else, the power Haynes is able to cultivate in the scene set on the miniature version of New York City made for the World’s Fair – a gorgeously symbolic and designed inclusion – in the Queens Museum as Ben learns the truth about his father is perhaps one of the most magical and quietly emotional moments in film this year. It is a scene that comes as the film rises to an emotional crescendo, delivering a tremendous gut punch that is both tragic and entirely uplifting. The strong acting of both Moore and Fegley shine through in this powerful moment as they unconventionally flip between spoken dialogue and sign language yet none of the emotion gets lost. Throughout the film, however, Haynes is able to keep this same emotion at the forefront. It is this scene, above all others, that allows Wonderstruck to stand as one of the year’s finest films. Demonstrating the power of human connection between two souls aimlessly floating through space until they find one another or until they find their purpose, Haynes’ films are as poetic as they are comforting with this one being no exception. Wonderstruck is simply a film that is a beautiful, moving, and gorgeous recreation of the human experience.
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