Wonderstruck: Brian Selznick’s Inexplicable Charms

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.

** ½ (out of 4)

When it comes to success, the children’s author Brian Selznick has had it pretty darn good. His most recent half-written-half-illustrated novels (The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck, The Marvels) have not only all been award-winning bestsellers: they’ve also caught the eye of some of the movie world’s biggest directors, who’ve justly viewed Selznick’s frame-by-frame illustrations as ripe material for adaptation. Six years ago, Martin Scorsese was the first to take the bait, turning The Invention of Hugo Cabret into an evocative (albeit occasionally cloying) celebration of the silent era. Now, Todd Haynes, the genre-bending director of works like Poison, Far from Heaven, and Carol, has taken up the task of adapting Wonderstruck – a novel featuring two parallel storylines about a deaf boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) and a deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) who live 50 years apart.

Unfortunately, if Hugo was defined by an invigorating sense of joy, Haynes’ take on Selznick turns out to embody the opposite: unremitting clunkiness. And the main reason for this stems from the fact that Selznick’s script emulates the original novel’s structure to a fault. A good example of this can be seen in the ending; even though it has a lovely visual montage to accompany it, it unthinkingly carries over the book’s long, exposition-heavy reveal, and the result feels a tad tedious. (Side note: the fact that Hugo did something similar is one of the few things Scorsese got wrong in that film.)

Still, Wonderstruck’s mind-numbing fidelity to its source material proves most painfully apparent in the awkward way it moves between Ben and Rose’s stories. Case in point: towards the beginning, there’s a moment when Ben recites his deceased mother’s (Michelle Williams) favorite quote (“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”). Immediately after he says “stars,” the camera cuts to a shot of Rose reading a magazine about movie stars. In the book, such transitions felt clever and even moving; conversely, in the movie’s blatantly literal representation of them, they come off as forced, unnatural stabs at symbolism. The transitions generally improve over the course of the film, but on the whole, Haynes’ studiously faithful blending method pales against the way Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan organically integrated different storylines in movies like Incendies and Dunkirk.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Wonderstruck’s many other problems eventually prove no less frustrating. If Hugo’s Asa Butterfield occasionally felt a bit stilted, Fegley always talks and gestures as though he were directly reading off a script. Parts of the movie (large segments of Rose’s story in particular) fall completely under the background music’s control: get rid of Carter Burwell’s soaring melodies, and the story quickly loses emotional resonance. And Haynes’ insistence on shifting perspectives even in the same storyline – in Ben’s story, the film regularly moves between his POV, an omniscient-narrator standpoint, and the POV of his friend Jamie (Jaden Michael) – makes the movie fall victim to both poorly-developed subplots and the occasional bout of incoherence.

What’s ultimately most upsetting about Wonderstruck, however, is that it lacks the edginess that’s so prominent in all of Haynes’ previous work. Yes, you can see traces of his past self in the movie’s Dutch angle shots (à la Far from Heaven), the intentionally sickening yellow-blue lighting (à la Safe), and the juggling of multiple storylines (à la Poison and I’m Not There). But if you’ve come to love Haynes’ heretofore-unrelenting willingness to tear at (among many other things) the media and our understanding of history and sexuality, you’ll likely have difficulty comprehending why he chose to devote his energies to Selznick’s story. His depiction of two misunderstood kids is undeniably meticulous – but in the end, it feels oddly tame, a description that could never be applied to Carol’s representation of forbidden love or Safe’s evocation of an ineffable, pervasive sense of unease. Something just isn’t right if you can walk away from a Todd Haynes movie without feeling even remotely discomfited.

Still, the odd thing about Wonderstruck is that even though you’ll recognize its many, many flaws, you can’t help but look back at it with a vague feeling of fondness. Maybe it’s because Simmonds and Julianne Moore both give endearing performances (with Simmonds being a particular stand-out). Or maybe it’s the movie’s period detail: as with all his films, Haynes does a remarkable job reconstructing the two historical epochs he portrays, right down to the disco shirts and the Esther Phillips music. Or maybe it’s the aforementioned ending montage, which (despite the accompanying exposition’s heaviness) does an excellent job capturing the book’s idea that everybody’s life story can be “museumified.” I wouldn’t say that any one of these elements plays a significant redeeming role. But whether it’s from a combo of them or some other as-yet-unnamed factor, the story does eventually, inexplicably leave you feeling moved. The fact that it actually succeeds in doing so is the only way it really lives up to its title.

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.

***

Wonderstruck (2017)

Starring: Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams

Running Time: 117 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG, “for thematic elements and smoking.”

Produced by: Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, John Sloss

Written by: Brian Selznick. Based on Selznick’s 2011 novel of the same name.

Directed by: Todd Haynes