In 1977 Minnesota, Ben (Oakes Fegley) was missing his mother, a librarian who had died in a car crash recently. To make matters worse, although he had always wondered about his father and asked her about him often, she would always put off explaining what had happened to him for another time no matter how much he pleaded, and now she is gone forever he feels adrift, living with relatives who are perfectly nice to him, understanding his trauma, but never connecting with him in the way he really needs. But what is Ben's connection to Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a girl who lived back in 1927 and was profoundly deaf? Can they connect over the decades?
Wonderstruck was originally a book by Brian Selznick, also the author of another story uncharacteristically adapted by a director who was not known for his child-friendly work with Hugo, which Martin Scorsese had tackled a few years before Todd Haynes had a try at this. The previous effort did better with audiences and critics alike, which left the production here seemingly adrift itself, yet it did pick up a following of both Haynes fans and children who didn't mind the shifting time periods and simply liked the story - perhaps they had read the source material and knew what they were in for, something many unimpressed adults would not have had the benefit of.
Haynes did make some curious artistic decisions, it had to be said, the most curious being his insistence on recreating the quality of memory with murky cinematography that made scenes difficult to pick out properly unless your eyesight was particularly keen, or you turned up the brightness on whatever device you were experiencing it on. This, too, was not going to make the project a whole lot of friends, yet it did have a point in that you concentrated more on the sounds he was adding, largely musical in the scenes with Rose which deliberately invoked the power of silent cinema, something the little girl is unsurprisingly very attached to - The Jazz Singer can't be a favourite.
Both kids are linked through their need to find a parent, and both run away from home at one point, Ben after suffering a condition where he is struck by lightning in a phone booth (!) leaving him deaf as well. If this was sounding ridiculous, it should be noted Haynes, and indeed Selznick who penned the screenplay for him, were not sticking with any grand claims to realism here, treating the past as one would a fairy tale from long ago, which the nineteen-seventies, and the nineteen-twenties for that matter, would appear to be for a child of the twenty-first century. Not quite an era of hey nonny no, court jesters or doublet and hose, but a reminder that time marches on and everything contemporary will be ancient history one day, prompting one to ponder how the movies of today will look in centuries time.
There will be so many by then that it will presumably be impossible to take in a cross section of the benchmark entertainments and works of art alike, thanks to how numerous the choices will be, but Wonderstruck wanted us to see films - and books - as gateways into the past, artefacts that can tell us about how life was lived, and something of us that has been left behind. The twin threads of Ben and Rose's journeys were tied up eventually, and in appropriately fable-like fashion which though rather pat and convenient did demonstrate a faith to the validity of telling stories, be that history or fiction we can learn history from. Julianne Moore was probably the biggest name here, playing Rose's screen idol (and more), but familiar faces like Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan and Cory Michael Smith were featured briefly if prominently, and the two kids ably shouldered the task of moving the plot along, Simmonds all the more impressive for her genuine deafness and lack of training in acting. Music by Carter Burwell, with well-chosen oldies.
[Interview featurettes are on Studio Canal's DVD, as well as deleted scenes and more.]
Intriguing American arthouse writer-director whose student film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story created a big fuss, and is still banned to this day. The episodic Poison was a disappointing follow up, but Safe was heralded as a triumph. His document of glam rock, Velvet Goldmine, wasn't as well received, however Far From Heaven, a 1950's-set melodrama, was Oscar-nominated, as was the similarly-set romance Carol. In between those were an offbeat take on Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, and a miniseries of Mildred Pierce. He followed them with the apparently out of character children's story Wonderstruck.