Todd Haynes’s ‘Wonderstruck’ is a Charmingly Family-Friendly Return to Familiar Themes

You don't expect the echoes of 'Superstar' and 'Poison,' but there they are.

The stories begin in two different places, at two different times, with two different people. Little Ben (Oakes Fegley) lives in Gunflint, Michigan, in 1977; his mother (Michelle Williams) died recently, but he’s still haunted by her memory, visions of her smoking and reading after he went to bed, with Bowie on the phonograph, refusing to answer his questions about the father he’s never known. Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is missing her mother too; she lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, circa 1927, at the end of the silent movie era – and she goes to the movies every chance she gets, particularly the films of the perfectly-named “Lillian Mayhew” (Julianne Moore).

Rose, by the way, is deaf. Early in the film, Ben has an accident, and suddenly finds himself unable to hear. Both children decide to run away from home, to New York City; Rose to seek out her beloved Lillian, who will soon appear on the Broadway stage (the local movie house is installing its “Vitaphone” system, and soon there will be new movie stars), and Ben to follow a clue to his father’s identity, one that makes him believe he’ll find this strange man at a bookstore on the Upper West Side. So they each head to The City, where the film traffics in both the thrill and the fear of being all alone in a strange place, which couples with the end-of-the-world intensity of literally every feeling when you’re a kid.

Ben and Rose’s story was first told by Brian Selznick in the novel of Wonderstruck — he also wrote the novel that inspired Scorsese’s Hugo; now it’s the new film from Todd Haynes, making his first PG movie, and one that feels personal and important to him (he was a kid in the ‘70s, and those scenes have the emotional immediacy of firsthand memory). Like Hugo, it’s a children’s book for grown-up movie lovers, and Haynes replicates the stylistic authenticity of his otherwise very different Poison by shooting each half of Wonderstruck in a contemporaneous manner: the ‘70s section has the heat and grit of so many New York movies in that period, while the ‘20s material is shot like a silent movie, but not in silent movie style (we see the difference when Rose goes to the movies). Haynes doesn’t limit himself to that vocabulary, but he uses it; he also folds in real events, like the New York World’s Fair and the notorious ’77 blackout.

The most astonishing achievement of Wonderstruck is how Haynes manages to take advantage of these novelties without making them feel like gimmicks; the two story strands fold in together elegantly, each giving the other little nudges. They alternate Carter Burwell’s ornate music in Rose’s story with the muted sounds inside Ben’s head, a risky choice that works (she’s presumably filled those silences by now, but they’re still new and strange to him). As you’d probably expect from both the style and the subject matter, there’s little to no dialogue – yet the audience I saw it with was afraid to make a sound, lest they crack this fragile object.

The stories eventually intersect, as they’re bound to; we’ve all seen a movie or two. But it happens with an emotional force that, put simply, just clobbered me – and I can’t really pinpoint how or why. There’s just something about the way Ben reveals himself to the people he finds in that bookstore, and the way they answer his questions, that’s overwhelming and true, yet steadfastly clear of the maudlin.

The key may come a few minutes later, when the full story is told to Ben (and to us), and brought to life not with flashbacks, but with a beautiful sequences of miniatures. It has a jewelry-box intimacy that’s perfectly in tune with the film – but it’s also an unexpected throwback to Superstar, Haynes’s first feature, which also used what could’ve been a silly gimmick (the life of Karen Carpenter, told with Barbie dolls) and invested it with an uncommon poignancy. And what’s ultimately so wonderful about Wonderstruck is the same thing that was so charming about Hugo, or Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are: the way that, in shifting to a very different audience than usual, these adult-oriented filmmakers discovered their most universal themes, ideas, and emotions.

“Wonderstruck” is out Friday in limited release.