Say what you will about the career of Todd Haynes, at least it’s been eclectic. From his Barbie doll experimentation of Superstar, the AIDS-era drama Poison, the musical musings of Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There or the Sirkian Far from Heaven and Carol, each work in their way reflects an artist challenging both himself and his audiences.
Even for such an iconoclastic independent director a swing into young adult storytelling seems a bit of a departure. Wonderstruck is based on a novel by Brian Selznick, the same scribe that gave story to Scorsese’s Hugo. The begins in 1927, following a young girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) who lives in silence, losing herself in the images at the local cinema palace and idolizing on-screen star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). These black-and-white sequences then lead to a colourful 1977, where Ben (Oakes Fegley) must come to terms with the sudden death of his mother.
In both timelines the kids run away to seek something out - Rose her idol, Ben his unknown father – and this interplay of time and place is what gives the film much of its energy. It’s incontrovertible that the visual stylings of the film are impeccable, with luscious production design both for the Silent film-era elements and the astonishing recreations of '70s NYC. Edward Lachman’s photographic style makes both eras leap off the screen, but give special ovation to Mark Friedberg and his design team for the film’s most effective element.
The work falters, unfortunately, due to a number of factors. The first is that the casting of Ben is truly unfortunate - Fegley is awkward and unconvincing, feeling at all times like he’s floundering. This isn’t helped by supporting characters including an enthusiastic Jamie (Jaden Michael) who feel far more of the piece than the lead. Equally unfortunate is that the child actor has to compete on screen with Moore’s radiance, and despite trying to dial it back she simply outshines the awkwardness of the kid.
If it’s churlish to pick on a child actor, the same sense of misguided tone can be said for the dialogue and general sense of direction. It’s as if Haynes’ design gets in the way of the story, too casually bouncing back and forth without ever feeling that he’s getting the timing right. Scenes go on too long, beats feel repetitive, the interplay between eras feels forced. Despite its glossy, cinematic look the film feels small and televisual, but not in a good way, like something that storywise may even work better as a casual view on the plane or while cooking dinner. There are moments, almost all with Moore, that rise to a level in keeping with Haynes' previous works, but these quickly dissipate into more maudlin moments.
Carter Burwell’s score is as sympathetic as always, even if at times it feels like it’s doing even more heavy lifting than is usually required. And kudos to Simmonds, an actor who happens to be deaf off screen as well, who has an expressive face and kind comportment that works far better in that section than her mirror’d character does.
Despite the luscious design and Haynes’ clear commitment to dive into two disparate eras of cinema style the end result is a mishmash of predictable moments and overwrought emotions. While his previous film may have been unjustly lauded as a flawless masterpiece, even the most charitable will likely see that this is a step back for the auteur. Wonderstruck tries to strike a balance between sweetness and drama, yet with its overlong running time nearing two hours, its clunky structure and some miscasting it feels very much like a film that fails at living up to its name.