Few filmmakers working today build whole worlds as immersive and intoxicating as Todd Haynes. From the lush midcentury melodramas Carol and Far From Heaven to the glittery glam-rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine and shape-shifting Bob Dylan “biopic” I’m Not There, every project is made with the painterly care and detail of pure, obsessive artistry. And he lavishes no less on Wonderstruck, even if the source material may not ultimately deserve his gifts.
A dreamlike children’s fable featherlight on character development and dialogue, the movie (based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 novel of the same name) is rich at least in singularly Haynes-ian touches. Who else would strive to introduce an all-ages audience so lovingly to the joys of David Bowie, Oscar Wilde, and the cult band Sweet — or shoot nearly half the film in creamy black-and-white 35mm stock so rare it had to be special-ordered from Kodak?
His musical and visual choices serve a practical purpose, too, of course, marking the parallel story lines of his two 12-year-old protagonists: shaggy-haired Ben (Oakes Fegley), freshly orphaned and adrift in circa-1977 Gunflint Lake, Minn., and watchful Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a restless resident of 1927 Hoboken, N.J. Both are deaf — Rose apparently from birth, Ben after a freak household accident. And both are in search of an absent parent, she the dazzling silent-film-star mother (Julianne Moore, in the first of two roles) and he the dad he never knew. Their quests lead each of them to New York City, and eventually the marble steps of the American Museum of Natural History — where, if this were a different kind of kids’ movie, Teddy Roosevelt and Attila the Hun would come alive to teach zany lessons on teamwork and togetherness. Instead it becomes a refuge, and another piece of the riddle.
There’s hardly a moment here that isn’t gorgeously framed, and Haynes seems to take particular pleasure in meticulously re-creating the Manhattan street scenes of two such distinctive decades. (His longtime collaborator, Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, is a maestro of flapper beading and flammable ’70s knitwear.) But even a ravishingly shot finale — Queens has never looked so enchanting — can’t quite paper over the weak resolution of the plot’s central mystery. And as much as Wonderstruck aims to capture the ephemeral magic of childhood, it feels less like true alchemy than a lovely, fussy jewel box — a cabinet of curiosities whose jumbled contents remain, in the end, just that. B