The challenge for director Todd Haynes in adapting Wonderstruck to the screen was living up to the formal and narrative intricacies of Brian Selznick’s novel for young adults. The marvel of the movie is that it not only honors the book’s artistic achievement, but even expands upon it with creativity and sophistication.
First, the faithfulness (and it should be noted the Selznick himself wrote the script). From its opening dream sequence, in which a boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) is chased by wolves, Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman use a combination of slow motion and blurred camera movements to evoke the impressionistic strokes of Selznick’s full-page drawings, which take up nearly half of the book (the rest is prose). Ben has been having these dreams since losing his librarian mom (Michelle Williams) in a car accident. Unsettled in his new life living with his cousins, Ben impulsively takes a bus from backwoods Minnesota to New York City, where he hopes to find the father he never knew using a series of clues he found in his mother’s things.
The secondary narrative takes place some 50 years earlier, in the New York City of the 1920s. The main character here is a girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who is looking to reunite with her estranged mother, an actress (Julianne Moore). Like Ben, Rose is deaf, which Haynes evokes by staging her scenes as a black-and-white silent film—complete with a jittery camera aesthetic and a score, by Carter Burwell, that employs expressive piano chords as emotional accents. It’s a lovely choice, invested (like The Artist and the best parts of another Selznick adaptation, Hugo) with a genuine enthusiasm for the lost art form of silent cinema.
The stories of Ben and Rose begin to converge when Ben takes shelter at the American Museum of Natural History and discovers that one of the life-size animal dioramas, featuring wolves, is a recreation of the Minnesota woods where he lived. Investigating this and other tenuous connections he discovers in the museum, Ben is led to the grown-up Rose (Moore again), who holds the secrets to his family’s past.
Wonderstruck is an act of discovery.
Rose unveils all in a climax that feels heavy on dialogue, especially given that much of the movie—even the sections of Ben arriving in gritty 1970s NYC—are completely dialogue-free. Yet here is where Haynes unveils the movie’s masterstroke, something as creative as Selznick’s novel, yet completely its own aesthetic. As Moore speaks, we see what she describes being enacted by miniature, cut-paper figures; atop the figures are the actors’ faces, framed like portraits. Part stop-motion, part arts-and-crafts whimsy, the technique is just right for a movie that is all about using little fragments of narrative to patch together a grander story.
In this, Wonderstruck also distinguishes itself as one of Haynes’ most experimental films—which is saying something. From Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a short that also employed dolls and miniatures; to Far From Heaven, his spitting-image homage to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk; to I’m Not There, which used multiple actors to play the one and only Bob Dylan, Haynes is at his best when expanding the formal boundaries of the movies. Wonderstruck is similarly an act of discovery—of a museum, of a city, of one’s own past, and of what children’s cinema can do in the hands of a master filmmaker.