The “cabinet of wonders”—a museum-like room stuffed to bursting with objects from the worlds of natural history, archaeology, and art—is a recurring theme in Todd Haynes’ new film Wonderstruck, based on a young-adult novel of the same name written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. There couldn’t be a more apt image for Haynes’ particular sensibility, which has always had something of the collector about it. An avid observer of period style and historical detail, he lays out each shot with the obsessive care of a curator. Everything matters, from the precise mix of colors to the movement of the camera to the smallest element of the characters’ costumes or the knickknacks on their shelves.
Haynes also resembles the Renaissance scholars who created cabinets of wonder in the breadth of his interests. He’s made films about environmental illness in modern suburbia (Safe), the erotic allure of ’70s glam rock (Velvet Goldmine), the anguish of being a closeted gay person in the ’50s (Far from Heaven, Carol) and the adventures of a transhistorical, transracial, and transgender Bob Dylan (I’m Not There). He seems most at home when piecing together multiple historical periods and genres into a stylistic crazy quilt—which makes the particular structure of Wonderstruck a perfect fit for him.
The story, adapted by Selznick from his book, follows the journeys of two deaf children separated by 50 years in time. In 1927, 12-year-old Rose (Millicent Simmonds) lives a lonely life in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her dour father (James Urbaniak). Rose’s deafness isolates her from the hearing world around her, and her place of solace is the movie theater where she goes to moon over her favorite actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Haynes re-creates scenes from the star’s movies in a loving pastiche of D.W. Griffith’s silent melodramas starring Lillian Gish. As a matter of fact—aesthetic spoiler ahead—this whole part of the movie is silent, or at least dialogue-free, its emotion communicated entirely through the black-and-white images, Carter Burwell’s lively orchestral score, and Simmonds’ fiercely expressive face.
Eventually, Rose will get on the Hudson River ferry and head to New York City in search of the actress she idolizes. But first we must get to know Ben (Oakes Fegley), another 12-year-old living in small-town Minnesota in 1977. His single mother (Michelle Williams) has recently died, and he’s living with relatives and still consumed by grief. Shortly after discovering a clue to the identity of his father in his mother’s effects, Ben loses his hearing in a freak accident that, as Haynes films it, seems somehow cosmically linked with Rose’s story. He buys a bus ticket to New York and sets out on a journey even more perilous than the one that little girl took all those years ago.
Wonderstruck strikes a curious emotional tone, alternating between suspense and quiet wistfulness, with sudden surges of operatic intensity as the two timelines begin to connect. Still, all the moods hang together like the movements of a piece of classical music expressing different tempos: allegro, adagio, andante. This may be the most music-driven of Haynes’ films yet, with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Deodato’s jazz-funk version of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra playing prominent roles in the ’70s-set scenes. Given that both young protagonists are deaf, music’s prominence in Wonderstruck takes on a thematic dimension as well. The audience, immersed in a sensory world that’s richly visual and sonic but short on spoken language, feels our way into what the characters are feeling. Hearing and deaf people in this movie can communicate only by exchanging written notes. (Rose has never learned to sign or read lips, and Ben hasn’t been deaf long enough to even start.) So the passing back and forth of scribbled-on tablets becomes a motif, and some of the movie’s most revealing and affecting moments happen while reading words on a piece of paper.
Rose’s half of Wonderstruck remained, for me, more consistently involving than Ben’s. That might be a simple function of the presence of Millicent Simmonds, whose round, still face commands the screen as completely as that of any silent star and makes the dialogue in the Ben segments seem almost superfluous. Finding a deaf actress—and a very good one—to play this character was no mere gesture of “inclusion” on Haynes’ part; it was a brilliant piece of casting. Simmonds, making her screen debut, easily owns the movie, and that’s saying something in an ensemble cast that includes not only two other fine child actors—Fegley and Jaden Michael, who plays a boy Ben befriends on the streets of Manhattan—but such veteran talents as Julianne Moore and Tom Noonan.
The last thing to say about Wonderstruck is that the work of its technical crew, a dry term for the powerhouse of talent and artistry at work here, is impeccable. The costume design, by longtime Haynes collaborator and three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, summons not only two separate eras but two separate social classes, regions, and cultural milieus. A long sequence in which the nervous-but-determined Ben makes his way down a packed Manhattan street on a warm 1977 day is a triumph of production design (by Mark Friedberg). Edward Lachman’s 35mm cinematography doesn’t just frame pretty compositions: His camerawork is a part of the movie’s expressive toolkit, seeming to move in tandem with the director’s imagination. In an early scene on a boat, a gust of wind blows an important newspaper clipping out of Rose’s hand. As she chases the scrap of paper around the deck, the camera darts and eddies with it in a movement that’s at once urgent and whimsical.
I know there are some critics who find Haynes’ commitment to surface perfection off-putting and have trouble emotionally connecting to his movies. I talked to one of them on the way out of Wonderstruck, a writer I greatly admire who, while praising the film’s technical achievements, admitted that he found the romantic lyricism of the ending “a little moist.” I nodded sagely, hoping it wasn’t too obvious that my eyes were still wet.