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Review: Wonderstruck

(Director: Todd Haynes, Country/Distributor: USA, Amazon Studios, Opening: October 20)

The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles houses such treasures as a crucifix carved into the desiccated pit of a fruit, a fungus-petrified “stink ant” from the Cameroon, and the skeleton of a European mole. Proper historical wonders or dustbin rejects from curiosity cabinets? Is there a difference? This odd place, found, not like a “real” museum should be, among uninviting storefronts in downtown Culver City, is a museum only inasmuch as it takes museums as its subject. A thoroughly self-aware object, full of unexpected marvels one might not consider for eternal display, it was on my mind throughout Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, which, like all of Haynes’s films, is a thoroughly self-aware object, full of unexpected marvels, and which takes both museums and film itself as its subjects.

A sculptor of beautiful and strange objects that fit into very particular corners and crevices of history, Haynes was born to make a movie about historical curation. Haynes’s geographical and temporal settings are never circumstantial; they’re everything. His Safe (1995) and television miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) aren’t merely set, respectively, in ’80s and ’30s Los Angeles—each excavates its own time and place, with a remarkable attention to physical detail and an intellectual fascination with what those times and places mean retrospectively, in the crawl of history. Now imagine those two films cut together to prompt a dialogue between their two eras and you might have something like the experience of Wonderstruck.

Like Scorsese’s Hugo, a faithful adaptation of a splendid young adult novel by Brian Selznick—who both writes his stories and illustrates them with evocative, black-and-white pencil and graphite drawings—Wonderstruck follows two parallel narrative tracks. In the first, set in 1977, a 12-year-old Minnesotan boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley), coping with his mother’s recent death in a car accident, is suddenly struck by lightning, leaving him deaf. Unmoored from his life and one of his senses, he takes off on a journey to New York to try and find the father he never knew, with the most minimal of compasses in tow—a bookmark directing him to an old bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the second, unfolding 50 years prior, a deaf, adolescent girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) wriggles out from under the thumb of her authoritarian father (James Urbaniak), escaping from her forbidding home in Hoboken, New Jersey, to the glittering city across the Hudson River, in search of her apparent idol, film and stage star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). One half is colored by the burnished, bronzed glow of ’70s American childhood; the other, without dialogue and shot in black-and-white, evokes its era’s cinema as well as the silent world of its young protagonist. Both halves feature production designer Mark Friedberg’s meticulous re-creations of bustling cityscapes—from the beautifully grimy multicultural wonderland of Ben’s New York to an equally textured evocation of Rose’s monochrome, pre-Depression urban utopia—and Haynes and editor Affonso Gonçalves shift between them with abrupt cuts and sound bridges that produce a textured, sensory experience of the city.

The alternating between the two stories is faithful to Selznick’s original book, which told Ben’s story in prose and Rose’s in pictures, but it’s also wholly in keeping with Haynes’s own tendency to play with juxtaposing forms. Oddly, the kid-appropriate Wonderstruck most recalls Haynes’s very R-rated breakthrough Poison (1991), which cut among three different genres, tracing cinematic and queer historical spaces via tabloid mockumentary, B sci-fi schlock, and Genet-esque homoerotic melodrama. As in that film, Haynes simulates, in remarkable, loving detail, varieties of popular art in order to both penetrate and put into context the periods from which they came: not only does Haynes evoke the movements and physicality of the silent screen in telling Rose’s story, at one point he even crafts a silent film within the film, with Moore’s Lillian Mayhew doing her best Lillian Gish as she tries to protect a baby while on a storm-battered plain.

Haynes’s genre play extends to the entire project—this is, in a sense, his “children’s film”—but he never loses sight of his characters amid experimentation. Ben and Rose are cosmically united by their deafness; the freak quality of Ben’s disabling makes their connection seem more like fate than coincidence, a dialogue occurring across time and space. Yet neither of them, nor Jamie (Jaden Michael), a lonely boy Ben crucially befriends upon arriving in New York, is defined by setback. They are all trying to find their own destinies, as expressed by the messages Rose scrawls on pieces of paper—Help me; Where do I belong?—and sends into the unknown. In this way Rose is like little Jack Fairy at the beginning of Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998), who, as that film’s narrator tells us, is just trying to “discover that somewhere there were others just like him.”

It’s natural for Haynes—filmmaker, excavator—that both Ben’s and Rose’s journeys lead to the American Museum of Natural History and the Queens Museum, where their fates begin to intertwine and the scope of this odd, compellingly scattered narrative starts to come into focus. Though Haynes’s analytical distance keeps it from getting mired in sentimentality, Wonderstruck does grow increasingly emotional. It is never more affecting than when subtly rendering the moments of awe that Ben and Rose unwittingly share across half a century while traversing the same museum exhibits: a monster-sized mosquito, an imposing meteorite sent to earth in 1902, a blue whale suspended in the air, all forever frozen in time. The wonder of the film’s title comes from the magic of the external world, not the precious inner lives of babes. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” goes an Oscar Wilde quote that recurs in the film—a reminder that children, like all of us, are the makers of their own destinies, the creators of their own cabinets of marvels.