The success of Todd Haynes’ Carol marked a triumphant return for a director releasing his first film in over half a decade. Haynes has never exactly been prolific with his new effort, Wonderstruck, being only his seventh in twenty-five years. Perhaps a return to a longer lay off would’ve served the director better rather than dishing up this incredibly dull children’s fantasy.
Brian Selznick has adapted the script from his own 2011 novel, an author whose The Invention Of Hugo Cabret story was also brought to the big screen in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. There are instant similarities to be found between the two films which serve as an ode to the silent era of cinema, although Scorsese’s film managed to evoke some of its ethereal magic where Haynes rocks his audience into a deep, restful sleep.
It starts with Ben (Oakley Fegley), a young boy who lives with his aunt in Gunflint, Michigan after losing his mother (Michelle Williams) some years before. He dreams of his mother still being alive and continues to be frustrated about never knowing his father. Ben's half of the story is set in 1977 and just to remind us Haynes clumsily positions David Bowie’s Space Oddity into scenes where Ben is looking at quotes about the stars, or when he experiences a life changing incident that causes him to lose his hearing.
We see Ben in colour, while we follow a young deaf girl called Rose (Millicent Simmonds – the rare case of a deaf actress actually being cast in such a role) in black and white back in 1927. She finds refuge from her strict father by enjoying the films of silent movie star Lillian Mayhew (regular Haynes collaborator Julianne Moore) at her local cinema. Ben takes the bold decision to run away in an attempt to find out more about his father at a random New York book shop. Meanwhile, Rose also leaves home to track down Lillian and ends up in the American Museum of Natural History, where Ben also finds himself some time later.
Given the way Haynes directs these dual stories you may be forgiven for completely missing what either of these children are up to. The reasons why they have embarked on a journey halfway across the country only becomes clear after three-quarters of the film have passed by and your brain is in shutdown mode.
Even then the motivations are incredibly thin and where Selznick’s novel may feature badly needed context and detail, both the script and direction rely on unbelievable choices made by the children. The sole reason being to position Ben and Rose in the same space fifty years apart so we can reach a conclusion that could’ve been resolved within the first ten minutes of the film.
The choice to frame Rose’s story in black and white to evoke the silent movie era only serves to slow down the pace of the story, accompanied by a clumsy score from the usually reliable Carter Burwell. Because Rose is deaf, no dialogue is heard in her world and instead of fully committing to a silent film aesthetic it remains stuck in an uninvolving halfway house.
Todd Haynes seems more in love with the idea of the story rather than finding a way to bring to life the connections between the kids existing in these two timelines. Julianne Moore’s appearance may be brief but she manages to finally add something to the drama just through the simple use of her facial expressions. If you make it through this self-indulgent bore and reach that point with your eyes still open, you deserve all the praise you can get.