Todd Haynes takes it down a notch for overstimulated kids in Wonderstruck

By Karen Gordon

(Rating: B)

Director Todd Haynes’ new movie Wonderstruck is about many things. But ultimately it seems to be asking whether, in this amped-up age, children will sit still for a movie that simply tells a story without manipulation or overt stimulation

Wonderstruck is based on a best-selling children’s book of the same name by Brian Seltznick, who also wrote the screenplay.  His previous novel, the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was also made into a movie, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

Neither Scorsese or Haynes are people who immediately come to mind when you think about children’s movies, but you can see the appeal. Selznick’s books are a beautiful mix of story and black and white illustrations that imbue the books with the feeling of old movies. 

 Julianne Moore and Oakes Fegley share some quiet wonder in Wonderstruck

Julianne Moore and Oakes Fegley share some quiet wonder in Wonderstruck

Even though they have that visual component, they make for tricky translations to the screen.  The experience of reading these adventures can’t be replicated in movie form. This is something that hobbled Hugo and, to a lesser extent Wonderstruck. 

Wonderstruck juxtaposes two stories. The first, set in 1977, is about Ben Wilson (Oakes Fegley), a boy who lives in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. He has grown up without knowing who is father is, information kept from him by his mom (Michelle Williams). 

But going through her things he finds what he believes are clues. In a freak accident, Ben is hit by lightning and loses his hearing. The adults around him are worried. But Ben’s deafness doesn’t seem to faze him. He is driven, and he sneaks away to Manhattan to see if the clues will lead him to find the father he yearns to know.

The second story line starts in 1927.  A young deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) lives with her father in New Jersey. They’re rich, but her father is not kind to her. She idolizes an actress named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and when the actress comes to Manhattan to open a play, Rose sneaks away to see her. 

The film intertwines the stories of the two deaf children on their quests, alone in Manhattan, separated by 50 years.

Todd Haynes is an unusual choice to direct a children’s film. He’s developed a body of work based on adult themes, identity, sexual repression, and homosexuality - as well as a knack for making movies that channel the look and feel of other eras. The 50’s melodramas Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), were both nominated for multiple Oscars.  

His work often has a restraint and, for better or worse, a kind of emotional flatness that reflects his chosen themes. 

What’s interesting in Wonderstruck is that Haynes doesn’t bust out a new, more hyper style aimed at getting those kids to pay attention.  In Wonderstruck his quiet restrained approach stays firmly in place. There’s no hysteria, no heightened sense of danger to raise adrenal levels, no product placement. In short, no manipulation.  

That’s both the good and bad news.  In its quiet way, it feels like an old-fashioned movie with story values from another place and time.  It talks to the audience straight up. It treats viewers, young and old as if they were intelligent beings.  That’s the good news of the movie.

The bad news is that the film sometimes just feels too flat, too unexciting.   And one wishes there was a bit more wonder in a film with that name. There’s also a problematic major plot turn at the end.

Can a movie like this hit home in an era of superheroes, fast edits and movies that feel like marketing tools that turn viewers into mini consumers?

It will be interesting to see. Wonderstruck is flawed. But I like the way Haynes treats the audience. In an era of too much, too fast, a little old fashioned restraint is, perhaps, enough wonder for now.

Wonderstuck. Directed by Todd Haines. Starring Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds and Michelle Williams. Opens Friday, October 27 at Toronto’s Varsity Cinema.