Todd Haynes has a lot of his own history to live up to.
After establishing himself as an audacious talent with “Superstar” (which used Barbie dolls to tell the story of Karen Carpenter), he became a pioneer of the “new queer cinema” with “Poison,” and broke through to the mainstream by reinventing the glossy Hollywood melodrama in “Far from Heaven.” He has pushed the boundaries of traditional narrative form, subverted cinematic tropes to challenge definitions of gay culture imposed by heteronormative society, and given voice to “otherness” through a medium in which it has historically been repressed.
With a pedigree like that, it may come as a surprise that, for his latest work, he has chosen to make what is essentially a feel-good family film.
Such a pairing of director to material might seem unlikely, at first; but once the film starts rolling, it doesn’t take long to realize that Haynes and “Wonderstruck” are a match made in movie heaven.
Through two interwoven stories, taking place 50 years apart, its the saga of two young runaways. In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) – who has recently lost his mother to a traffic accident – embarks on a quest to find his father, whom he has never known; in 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) flees her tyrannical father and goes to New York to seek out her favorite film star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). As their tales proceed, it becomes clear that the parallels between these two children are more than just a similarity of detail, and that they are somehow linked across time by the answers they pursue.
The conceit is inherently both literary and “gimmicky,” but the director – along with author Brian Selznick, who adapted the thoughtful screenplay from his own 2011 novel of the same name – has turned both those qualities into building blocks for pure cinema. Known for appropriating vintage techniques in his work, Haynes takes full advantage of the opportunity to explore two widely different periods in a single film. Each story is framed in the visual language of its era, utilizing the gritty milieu and unmistakable color palette of seventies cinema for Ben’s segments and the richly evocative black-and-white grandeur of the silent screen for Rose’s. Both affectations, as executed by cinematographer Edward Lachman, are exquisitely realized, making “Wonderstruck,” perhaps above all else, a bewitching treat for the eyes.
Likewise, Haynes’ musical choices are canny reflections of each period. His oft-noted love for seventies “outre” rock finds expression in Ben’s timeline through astute selections by David Bowie, Fripp and Eno, and Sweet; for Rose’s silent world, the near-constant orchestral accompaniment (by Haynes regular Carter Burwell) eloquently provides the emotional cues made necessary by the lack of spoken dialogue.
Equally on target are the film’s performances. The ever-luminous Moore, a longtime muse for the director, proves yet again that she is one of her generation’s most gifted actresses with her virtually wordless performance. Michelle Williams, as Ben’s doomed mother, strikes a perfect balance of warmth and melancholy.
Superb as these seasoned veterans are, the film rightly belongs to the trio of younger actors around whom its plot revolves.
Fegley and Simmonds both give mature, fleshed-out portrayals that engage our empathy for the duration of the film; and the winning Jaden Michael is a joy as Jaime, the lonely and sensitive boy who befriends Ben, providing an emotional ground in the here-and-now for a story which otherwise deals in unrequited connections between past and future.
It is the man behind the camera, however, who is the real star of “Wonderstruck.” Though this heart-tugging fable about the enduring power of love might, in other hands, seem sappy and manipulative, Haynes – as much chameleon as auteur – embraces its sentimental qualities and deploys them with unflinching sincerity within the framework of his own distinctive style. Informed by his fascination with semiotics, he explores its themes through layers of meaning intricately woven throughout its recurring motifs. His use of the film’s preoccupation with architecture and museums is by itself worthy of extensive commentary – but the riches of this “cabinet of wonders” are best left to experience first-hand.
As a side note, Haynes is an “out” film director who has reached a place of prominence in the industry, and as such carries the hopes and expectations of an entire community on his shoulders. Although “Wonderstruck” is a “non-queer” story, it is told with unmistakably queer sensibilities.
As always, Haynes gives us a film about societal “outliers” trying to find their place in a world that has no room for them – something that goes right to the heart of the LGBTQ experience, yet speaks to the yearnings of a broader audience as well.
This universal appeal means that most viewers will likely fall in love with “Wonderstruck.” Not only is it Haynes’ most accessible work to date, it is one of those rare films that truly deserves to be called “magical.”