It’s become a commonplace to bemoan the glut of big-budget spectacles in Hollywood (and rightly so). I mean, I love seeing lots of things blown up and hearing superheroes make fun of each other as much as the next movie-goer, but occasionally I like to see a film that has a strong story with compelling, well-drawn characters, a distinctive look, and a resonant emotional core.
Fortunately for those of us who like a good story told well, there’s a filmmaker like Todd Haynes.
With his most recent film, Wonderstruck, Haynes demonstrates once again his talents as a director who not only knows the particular qualities of the medium has chosen to work in, but also loves telling stories through film. Somewhere along the line recently, we seem to have lost a little bit of our own wonder at the ability of the medium to tell us stories that matter to us in a way that is different from literature, drama, or television. Through Wonderstruck, a story fundamentally about the search for family in the midst of the chaos of modern life, Haynes shows us the simple pleasures that can still be found in the cinema.
The film follows two narrative strands, one in 1927 and one in 1977. In 1927 New York, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) dreams of an escape from her father’s oppressive home to see her actress mother on the stage. Though hearing-impaired, she is determined to make her way there. In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) sets out for NYC in search of his father.
Haynes has a well-deserved reputation for visual artistry, but this film demonstrates that he has a similarly fine-tuned sense of sound. The portions of the film devoted to Rose’s journey is highly evocative, with a near-constant orchestral score that heightens her feelings of excitement, sadness, and joy. The 1970s portion is a much busier soundscape. Though Ben is also hearing-impaired (as a result of an accident involving lightning), there is a lot more ambient noise, a reflection of the chaotic New York City of the 1970s.
That’s not so say that the film isn’t visually stunning. As always, Haynes has a keen eye for visual composition, as with the almost impressionistic look of his 1920s New York, and the brash hues of the 1970s. This shouldn’t surprise us: Haynes has one a sharp eye for colour, perhaps the sharpest of any director working today. While the film may not be as chromatically complex as either Far from Heaven or Carol, it still a look all its own.
The two younger actors really shine in their roles. Simmonds, the newcomer, really does seem like one of the child stars of the silent era, with her combination of precociousness and innocence. Oakes Fegley similarly shines, though he has a rougher edge than Simmonds.
While she plays a smaller part than in most of her other films with Haynes, Moore radiates warmth as older Rose and a brutal beauty as Rose’s mother. I’ve always been one of Moore’s biggest fans, and I’m really glad that Haynes continues to give her parts in which she can shine.
The film moves slowly, but when it comes together at the end it makes the entire journey worth it. If you don’t feel a lump welling in your throat at the final revelations, then I think you should have yourself examined to make sure that you’re fully human. There is a true depth of emotion in this film that is (if I may be frank) a little rare in Haynes’ earlier films but has become increasingly common. For me, Carol really marked the turning point, when he started allowing genuine feeling to emerge in his films, and they are definitely the better for it.
Wonderstruck is also about the joy of modernity. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the chaos of our everyday lives, when the world seems to rush by it as an increasingly fast pace. Fortunately for us, Haynes allows his imagination and his camera to capture the beauty and, yes, the wonder of the world. Whether the expressionist landscapes of the 1920s or the grungy look of the 1970s, Haynes allows us to embrace the pleasures of the world.
In the end, Wonderstruck is a moving rumination on the power of family, friendship, and memory and the way that we make sense of the world around us. There’s a lot to love in this film, and I heartily recommend it.