Watching Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck is like watching a juggler who can’t quite find the right rhythm. Parallel narratives unfold 50 years apart (one in 1977 and one in 1927), but it takes 20 minutes before the cross-cutting finds a proper flow. Part of me wonders if this was an attempt to mirror the structure of Brian Selznick’s 2011 novel of the same name. (Selznick also wrote the screenplay of this adaptation.) Whatever the case, the result is a herky-jerky beginning that calls attention to the film’s overall narrative shortcomings from the outset.
The first two scenes set in 1977 are redundant intros to the movie, each containing some memory of the past and a pause to note the Oscar Wilde line “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” It’s the cinematic equivalent of reading a novel and finding the book’s epigraph repeated verbatim in the second paragraph of chapter one.
As Wonderstruck unfolded, I found myself completely enamored with the 1927 story, which is told in the style of a black and white silent movie. In a film about deafness and communication, it’s a fitting way to use cinematic language to explore these ideas. The 1977 scenes lack a sense of character, however. It’s just a normal-looking movie about kids in 1977. It made me think about the limits of mere realism. This kind of story seems to call out for something far more imaginative rather than grounded. Rather than playing counterpoint to the inventive artifice of 1927, the “reality” of 1977 feels like dead air in what should be a far livelier film.
Director: Todd Haynes
Release Date: October 20, 2017
In 1927, a deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) runs away from home to New York City in search of a more loving place to live. In 1977, a boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley), suddenly deaf after a freak lightning strike (just go with it), runs away from home to find the father he never knew in New York City. Eventually these two tales intersect, but only one of them held my attention. And yes, that Oscar Wilde quotation comes into play at some point. How’d you guess?
The 1927 sequences are works of great deliberation and craft. Every shot is precisely selected in order to communicate what’s going on overtly and emotionally, a reminder of how well interior lives can be revealed through the use of cinematic language. A Dutch angle is a sentence or a turn of phrase, not just a stylistic affectation, and when deployed it offered all I needed to know about what Rose was feeling in the moment. Simmonds’ performance is great as well. She looks like a chipper young heroine from a vintage comic strip, and she’s constantly reading her surroundings, whether it’s people’s mouths or the happenings around her. She’s a character trope actively watching this cinematic world she’s participating in. Then there’s Carter Burwell’s beautiful score, offering variations on a theme like Peter and the Wolf. Whatever isn’t communicated by the performances or the mise-en-scene, Burwell helps convey through the instruments used and the sudden punctuations of silence and discord.
By contrast, the 1977 sequences seem loose and haphazard. The deliberation may have been in trying to recreate the dirty, scuzzy, dangerous New York of the 1970s, getting the period details to be as authentic as possible, from the logos on soda machines to the needle drops, including Deodato’s kitschy disco cover of “Also Sprach Zarathustra”. Yet the 1977 sequences lack a certain personality. Despite the texture of the film grain, it felt a bit lacking in era-specific cinematic language. The 1927 sequences of Wonderstruck are dense with silent movie grammar, yet the 1977 sequences feel contemporary. Even Burwell’s faux 70s music seems a bit too modern. Part of me wonders how the 1977 sequences might have been enhanced had Haynes gone even further attempting to recreate 1970s film techniques, complementing the gloriously artificial-yet-paradoxically-more-real silent half of the story. The 1977 story just doesn’t feel like it’s set in its own fully realized cinematic world.
But even still, a few more rack zooms and screen wipes in the 1977 story wouldn’t salvage the deficiencies of the writing, in which the scripted dialogue says too much. While alone and hungry in New York, Ben meets and befriends a boy named Jamie (Jaden Michael). Jamie’s dad works at the American Museum of Natural History, and he helps Ben find a hidden room to stay in (shades of E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). They’ve only known each other a day, but they argue because the drama of the story demands it, and the dialogue is so on-the-nose. The story itself is also so small scale the way it’s presented, and the personal drama of an orphaned child now deprived of sound isn’t given the proper emotional grandiosity to make me care much for Ben. I felt like I knew Rose better than Ben. So much more was said in her story.
Perhaps the reason the 1977 bits don’t have as distinct a cinematic language is because the movie relies too much on what is spoken. The talkie is too talky. Language can say too much, and the 1927 segments are a reminder of how a visual medium can use its strengths to say more than language can. Had Wonderstruck tried to convey the experience of deafness in 1977, I feel like the grammar of 1970s cinema would feel more like part of the storytelling and not just an aspect of production design. Fegley and Michael are capable child actors, and I would have liked to see them communicate through hand gestures (not just ASL), body language, and motion rather than words. It would be interesting to figure out a way to portray an expedient childhood friendship on film that doesn’t require overt statements of loneliness or urgency. There are hints of the interesting possibilities of non-verbal communication late in the film when Julianne Moore and Tom Noonan show up, but it’s far too brief.
Wonderstruck isn’t all that bad so much as it’s a misfire or a miscalculation. During the end of the film, Haynes pushes the welcome artifice even further with a breathtaking diorama/dollhouse sequence. I was reminded of his controversial 1987 biopic short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which was told entirely with Barbie dolls. It’s a novel way to tell a certain kind of story, where form determines content and vice versa. A little bit more of that sensibility makes me wonder what Wonderstruck might have been had it succumbed to the power of artifice rather than a desire for some realism.
This reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Decay of Lying”, which champions artifice over reality when it comes to making art. Wilde makes a distinction between “unimaginative realism and imaginative reality”. When spoken and written language doesn’t figure so heavily in the storytelling of Wonderstruck, we’re given the latter. Haynes challenges himself to say more without normal words, becoming more creative with how he can play with cinematic form. Quoting Goethe in the same essay, Wilde notes that “it is in working within limits that the master reveals himself.” That’s spot on. No wonder he’s quoted twice in this movie.