With an adult-minded oeuvre that includes 1998’s Velvet Goldmine and 2015’s Carol, it’s a bit unexpected for Todd Haynes to direct an adaptation of Wonderstruck. The illustrated young adult novel was written by Brian Selznick, whose earlier book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was just as unexpectedly brought to the screen in Martin Scorsese’s spellbinding Hugo.
Both adaptations center on lonely children and feature nostalgic looks at how early cinema can feed an untapped desire to create. Thankfully for fans of Scorsese and Haynes, both films could only have sprung forth from the talents of their respective auteurs. Hugo was as much a valentine to Paris as it was to movies, and now Wonderstruck stands as both a love letter to New York and silent films.
While Haynes’ movie strives to compose a visual dialogue to bridge and overlap with two periods of time—1927 and 1977—he and screenwriter Selznick (adapting his own book) grant themselves creative license to utilize the wildly different cinematic styles of the separate eras to tell their spellbinding tale.
For the silent era, this means emulating the work of pioneers like D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation) and F.W. Murnau (Sunrise), who invented much of the visual language that cinema still employs to this day, while the seedy Manhattan of the ’70s recalls the pioneering work of street-level masters like Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and William Friedkin (The French Connection), independent directors who artistically flourished after the collapse of the studio system.
None of this would matter if Haynes and his frequent collaborators failed to bring each storyline to convincing life, but luckily production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Sandy Powell and cinematographer Edward Lachman are indispensable members of his crew, who together excel at period pieces. All three are veterans of 2002’s Far from Heaven, Haynes’ loving tribute to the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, and just as they did with that film’s evocative suburban setting, they’ve once again fastidiously resurrected a bygone era. But this time, they’ve pulled the feat off doubly well, having recreated two time periods exactly 50 years apart and set almost entirely in New York, with much of Selznick’s story coming to a head while merging and magically overlapping at the Museum of Natural History.
Haynes also struck lightning twice by finding two immensely talented young leads to play the 12-year-old protagonists in this decades-spanning tale. Ben (Oakes Fegley, star of last year’s little-seen Disney gem, Pete’s Dragon) is introduced in June 1977, when he suffers a one-two punch of devastating losses. First, his single mother (Manchester by the Sea’s Michelle Williams) is tragically killed in a car crash, and then literal lightning strikes, robbing him of his hearing. Longing to find the father he’s never met, Ben sneaks away from his grief-stricken aunt, boarding a bus that will transport him from his rural home in Minnesota toward destiny in the Big Apple. Meanwhile, Haynes cross-cuts this with a parallel story taking place in October 1927, as another young runaway flees Hoboken, New Jersey. The deaf-since-birth Rose (Millicent Simmonds, an immensely talented, hearing-impaired actress making her screen debut) leaves behind a father who cares little for her (Dave Made a Maze’s James Urbaniak) to track down her idol, silent-screen icon Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore, in her fourth collaboration with Haynes), who’s preparing for a stage role in New York.
Strewn with expertly art-directed garbage, a few portions of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights—two boroughs that haven’t fully gentrified—convincingly pass as 1977’s Upper West Side, while a bit of visual effects trickery and a lot of dapperly dressed extras assist in evoking Manhattan in 1927.
Adding immeasurably to the authenticity of a picture that’s reliant on its visuals, Lachman has photographed the movie on film—utilizing undercranked, black-and-white and long takes for the flapper-era scenes, and grainy, saturated color, long lenses and deep focus to depict the summer that Star Wars first debuted.
That summer also brought a blackout to Manhattan (due to, yes, a lightning strike), which facilitates this film’s emotional climax. It’s heavy on expository dialogue—which is slightly jarring for a film that’s been largely wordless until now—and reliant on cosmic coincidence, though these are minor gripes in a film that you can feel good about seeing with your children. If present events have you fearing for the future, then this visit to the past should strike just the right amount of wonder for the whole family. ◆
Starring Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Jaden Michael, Cory Michael Smith, Tom Noonan, Amy Hargreaves, Morgan Turner, Sawyer Nunes, Lauren Ridloff, James Urbaniak and Michelle Williams. Written by Brian Selznick, based upon his book. Directed by Todd Haynes. At Boston Common, Kendall Square and West Newton.