"A curator chooses what goes in the museum,"reads the introduction to a book in Wonderstruck. The same could be said for many filmmakers, and certainly for Wonderstruck’s director, Todd Haynes, who like a loving and dutiful academic fills his films with a bounty of references, objects, textures, music, symbols, and artwork in the aim to coordinate an elaborate constellation of inferences and resonances. And emotions too, certainly, for in this sweet and willing film. As in many others, Haynes is reconfiguring older forms of melodrama with a most acute sense of social history. Wonderstruck, which Brian Selznick adapts from his own book, at its best at once lifts the heart and tickles the mind with his clever conception.
The bifurcated story alternates between following two deaf children, Ben (Oakes Fegley), in 1977, who after losing his mother goes to New York in search of his unknown father, and Rose (Millicent Simmonds), in 1927, who leaves her home in Hoboken in the hope of finding a famous movie star (Julianne Moore) appearing there on stage. Ben is struck deaf at the film’s beginning in a lovely metaphysical jump of time, as Rose in 1927 attends a screening in a cinema about to install sound. While her story is shot silently and in black and white, using Carter Burwell’s score as its voice, Ben’s is done in sound variously muffled and revealed, because of his nascent injury. His deafness is less a fact and more the effect on a body of burgeoning childhood duress, grief, confusion and longing.
Each child’s search sends them, 50 years apart, to the Museum of Natural History, where not just Earth’s past but their own—and their future—lay. Ben is befriended by a darling, lonely boy (Jaden Michael) who helps him comb the museum for his past, and a bearded, benevolent Tom Noonan appears as a used bookdealer, each showcasing Wonderstruck’s sympathetic tenderness for those stranded. Details of the city, whether the shithole that is 1977’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, or the generous, unheard assistance of a Wall Street stranger in '27 ring true of texture and feeling, but Wonderstruck stumbles again and again, first by casting two young actors whose presence seems more appropriate as extras for different decades, then by poorly incorporating silent film styles in Rose's section, and further by pushing heavy soundtracks and visual fades to create an all too slippery, impersonal flow of lostness and a desire to discover and understand.
“Where do I belong?” Ben asks, and indeed this question drives Haynes’s thesis, for this filmmaker more often than not seems to construct his movies, exquisite sometimes to a fault, as elaborate, well-researched and passionately cared-over arguments. These misfits in time and space as concepts deserve our affection and thought—but as drama they only occasionally earn it. The juggle of ideas and echoes, of epistolary conversations, dreams and city plans, cinemas’s (and books’, museums’ and New York’s) sights, sounds and peoples—they are lushly imagined, yet dryly applied. This distance is in some degree intended so that we may be observant and constructively critical of the melodrama’s curated bricolage. Yet if Wonderstruck is a museum, it is one of virtuosic unevenness, keeping us at arm's reach from its exhibitions, many of which are questionably assembled.