There are two stories that intertwine in Todd Haynes’ Wonderstuck, the film based on the novel by Brian Selznick. But it’s not just two stories taking place on opposite ends of a city with a predictable means of intersection. Oh no. Instead, Wonderstruck takes place in two separate timelines, unfolding with two separate cinematic styles as it leaves you wondering just how these two parallel stories will collide. That mystery that drives so much of Wonderstruck may make it hard to forge an immediate emotional connection, but as the pieces begin to fall in place and the mystery begins to reveal itself, Wonderstruck culminates in a powerful, moving conclusion that makes this wondrous journey really something special.
The first of these two intersecting stories takes place in 1977. In Minnesota, young Ben (Oakes Fegley) is still mourning the loss of his mother (Michelle Williams) in a recent car accident. The young boy who has never known his father discovers a clue towards his identity within his mother’s old possessions, an address for a bookstore in New York City. After a freak accident leaves him deaf, the young man uses what limited resources he has to get to the Big Apple in the hopes of discovering his parentage.
In the second story set in 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is a young deaf girl that spends her time clipping out pictures of movie stars from the latest magazines. Her father (James Urbaniak) isn’t keen on her hobby, and that authoritative attitude of the father drives the young woman to leave her home in New Jersey and travel to heart of New York City. One of her matinee idols, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), is set to appear on the stage and the young girl makes the journey to see the star in person.
Both of these stories take these characters to the American Museum of Natural History, and buried within the relics on display is the key that unites these two lives travelling alone in New York City.
Each of these tales unfold with wildly divergent styles, allowing Todd Haynes to really flex his visual muscles. The New York of 1977 is the New York of urban decay, a city crumbling under the weight of its own existence. The cinematography of Edward Lachman looks like the gritty crime films of the era, a feel that is reminiscent of Dog Day Afternoon even though this film doesn’t feature the seedy elements of armed robbery. The New York of 1927 is a black and white hustle and bustle, bringing a style that is austere and somewhat reminiscent of the era’s silent dramas. Haynes weaves in and out of these two stories without revealing too much at once. So much of the film unfolds without a word of dialogue being uttered that it’s up to the actors and their physical gestures to inform us of what’s happening, although Haynes is in no rush to reveal the connection.
In the same way the film visually bounces between styles, the stunning score by Carter Burwell does the same. When in the streets of New York in the ‘70s, Burwell’s music is pulled from the era – a bit of funk, a bit of rock, a bit of soul. In the black and white past of the ‘20s, Burwell’s score steps back and is much more traditional its dramatic tone without ever crossing over into ragtime-like style of so many silent films. Burwell has always been an astounding composer who brings new life to each movie he works on and his work on Wonderstruck may just be his finest hour. The music works in conjunction with a story that mostly unfolds through silence and has a mystery deep within its heart, and the cues of Burwell’s score never gives away any of the major reveals that occur in the film’s emotional climax.
Todd Haynes and Brian Selznick, who wrote the screenplay based on his own novel, take their time in cluing in the audience as to just how these two stories in different times intersect. It’s extremely deliberate in its construction and withholding, leaving plenty of room for the viewer to doubt if anything will ever connect these loose threads. When they do connected, and I’m not revealing how, it lands with a resounding emotional punch, one that will have you reaching for the tissues. There’s nothing gimmicky or forced in this emotional conclusion, just a human story that touches the soul. It’s a powerful moment that fully validates everything that came before it.
Todd Haynes is one of our special filmmakers and Wonderstruck is another special film in his filmography. This is a movie with a heart and brain, a look and a feel that is rarely achieved in the medium. Wonderstruck flows gracefully between its two stories before uniting them in an emotional crescendo of absolute beauty. Haynes fills his film with a warmth that drowns out cynicism, and presents us with a reaffirming tale about connections through time, even ones that are elusive and don’t seem entirely clear at first.