It’s going to take a lot to follow up on Todd Haynes’ previous film Carol, but adapting a book from the writer of Hugo is a solid way to go about it.
Wonderstruck (2017) is a family mystery drama directed by Todd Haynes and written by Brian Selznick. It stars Oakes Fegly and Millicent Simmonds as two young deaf children who, separated by 50 years in the 70s and 20s respectively, journey to New York to find their missing parent.
Its a curious approach to a fascinating story, and Hayne’s manages to pull off the interweaving tales with the deftest of touches. While initially the interconnected narratives feel as if they’re fighting for screen-time, they become more fluid and natural as the film goes on, constantly threading through and around each other in a way that elevates both stories with fascinating parallels. The respective periods are also as much the stars as the characters and while both are romanticised in their own way, the 20s and 70s both leap off the screen in a similar method to Hayne’s previous period film Carol.
Part of this success has to be owed to the sound design which is as intelligent as the visuals are lush with detail. Haynes plays with the deafness of the two characters in interesting ways, especially in the 20s when the entire period is stylised in the same manner of a classic Hollywood silent picture – complete with no colour, exaggerated dialogue and a mickey-mousing score. The 70s by contrast feel vibrant and energetic, practically bursting with busyness and a classic rock soundtrack.
This makes the fact that the dialogue is by far the weakest part of the film incredibly ironic. Unfortunately it lacks the nuance and subtly of the visuals, instead preferring to spoon-feed the audience a little too much. The dialogue for the lead children especially feels broken by the simple fact that they don’t speak like children. Instead it constantly feels like they’re being fed their lines by an elderly fellow who hasn’t been a child since Star Wars came out – which unsurprisingly is the exact circumstances of Brian Selznick’s screenplay.
The cast however is mostly up to standard with the rest of Hayne’s vision. While Fegly is a little too one note, his companion Simmonds is a revelation considering this is her only acting role to date. Rounding out the cast is Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams in integral, albeit small roles. Both actress’ deliver the performance’s worthy of their reputations, with Moore in particular being a standout when the film finally draws to its heartwarming ending.
While I don’t see this topping the impact of Carol, Wonderstruck is still a poignant dual period piece that further cements Hayne’s grasp on fascinating dramas. Its dialogue may suffer, but ultimately its successes in sound design and interconnected narratives far outweigh any quibbles to make this truly an exceptional film to begin MIFF 2017 with.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended
Arthousers: Highly Recommended