“Wonderstruck” is a rarity — a bold, tremendously original film that is equally entertaining for children and adults. It’s one that will be adored for years to come.
The film transports the viewer to places that are long, long gone: Manhattan in the 1920s, the down-and-dirty Big Apple of the 1970s. And it tells two stories, separated by several decades, that are as emotionally involving as any in recent cinema.
The success of “Wonderstruck” is not altogether surprising considering the names involved. With films like “Safe,” “Far From Heaven,” and “Carol," Todd Haynes has become one of our most reliably captivating filmmakers.
The gentle, heartbreakingly exquisite “Wonderstruck” may at first seem something of a departure. However, Haynes has always been a successful chronicler of the outsider.
Brian Selznick’s 2011 book of the same name is a remarkable tale of two such outsiders. Haynes brings Selznick’s visually exhilarating text to vivid life, just as Martin Scorsese did when adapting the author’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” in 2007’s “Hugo.”
Haynes’s film is even stronger than “Hugo.” Perhaps it’s the power of its alternating storylines, and the charm of its two leads.
First, in 1977, is young, sad-eyed Ben (Oakes Fegley). He’s recently lost his mother in a car accident, and finds several mysterious clues about his past. A sudden accident causes him to lose his hearing, and also provides the impetus needed to head to New York City to find his father.
Meanwhile, in 1927, a young deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is on a quest of her own. It involves a silent film star named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), and her first trip into New York.
The relationship between Ben and Rose is explained very slowly over the nearly two-hour film. Many times, the connection they share is quite explicit, most notably in sequences of both at the Museum of Natural History.
Haynes has long been a master at cross-cutting; think of how expertly he developed the lives of his two female leads in “Carol,” or, more explicitly, his use of multiple actors portraying Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.” In “Wonderstruck,” the viewer needs to get used to the jumps in time. But once it’s well-established where we are and who is who, the effect is mesmerizing.
In essence, both Ben and Rose seek family, self-identity, and, perhaps above all else, friendship. They are dreamers, and the Oscar Wilde quote that opens the film — “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” — is a fitting encapsulation of the roles imagination and mystery play in their journeys.
All of the elements at work here are successful. Carter Burwell’s score is stirring and memorable, rivaling his music for films like Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Fargo” and Haynes’s own “Carol." Songs from David Bowie (“Space Oddity”) and Sweet (glam stomper “Fox on the Run”). And the film’s unexpected theme song is Deodato’s Strauss-gone-funk “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001).”
The alternating black-and-white and color photography by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Edward Lachman is stunning. The New York City panorama at the Queens Museum has never looked so delightful, and the period details are right-on. There’s even a charming sequence that calls to mind “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” Haynes’s still-controversial stop-motion animated film using Barbie dolls.
The performances from thethree young actors — Millicent Simmonds as Rose, Oakes Fegley as Ben, and Jaden Michael as Jamie, a Queens native who aids Ben in his quest — are fittingly low-key.
If there’s any justice in the world of cinema, “Wonderstruck” will prove the type of unexpected, unhyped film for young adults that becomes a generational touchstone. It's ideal for kids around age 10 and older, but might prove a bit too heavy and difficult to follow for younger children. Give the little ones a few years, read Selznick’s book, and then share Haynes’s film. They’ll find it to be an enchanting experience.
4 stars (out of 4)
Starring Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams. The story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from 50 years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection. 116 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.