Wonderstruck: Looking at Stars

(USA, 117 min.)
Dir. Todd Haynes, Writ. Brian Selznick
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Jaden Michael, Michelle Williams
Jaden Michael, Oakes Fegley and Julianne Moore star in Wonderstruck
Elevation Pictures
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at stars.”

This quote shimmers on a recipe card that Ben (Oakes Fegley) keeps in memory of his late mother, Elaine (Michelle Williams). Ben remembers seeing the card in Elaine’s room while she was alive, like a “Hang in There, Baby” cat poster reminding her to take her lemons and make some lemonade. The quote is also an intimate memento of Elaine’s personality. It’s a line from Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan and while the stage drama doesn’t appear elsewhere in Wonderstruck, one can probably guess that Elaine read it multiple times and recommended it to many readers during her career as a librarian. This souvenir illustrates the way that people like Elaine—all of us, really—are everyday curators filling our lives with artefacts and mementos that hold personal value. Case in point being Ben’s addition of the card to his own memory box, like a mini museum of wonderful Elaine moments that keeps his mother vibrantly alive.

Museums and objects of wonder fuel two narratives in Wonderstruck, the excellent new film from Todd Haynes (Carol). Wonderstruck takes audiences through museums, bookshops, archives, and closets full of odds and ends as Ben explores his personal history through hidden treasures and buried memories. At the same time, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), is on a search in the parallel storyline that occurs in 1927, fifty years before Ben’s tale, which brings her to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Actions of the past foreshadow those in the present, while images from Ben’s story mirror Rose’s tale as they walk the same paths and interact with the same artefacts decades apart.

Wonderstruck, much like Canada’s Oscar submission Hochelaga, draws extraordinary power from the objects that endure through history and pass stories from one generation to the next. Books, letters, rocks, and heirlooms caress the palms of Ben and Rose alike throughout their travels and there is something infinitely humbling about Wonderstruck’s ability to illustrate how we all leave are mark on this world in one way or another through the things we create and collect.

Ben’s story unfolds with the discovery of a book, called Wonderstruck, that he finds hidden away in Elaine’s chest of treasures. This book is a keepsake from the museum, an old souvenir about a cabinet of wonders. Wonderstruck, the book, is a vault of its own since it houses a bookmark featuring a handwritten note to Elaine from a man named Danny, presumably the father Ben never knew.

This discovery inspires Ben to call the shop that produced the bookmark. However, a bolt of lightning strikes the house just as Ben puts the receiver to his ear. He becomes deaf in an instant and is unable to hear anything save for the memories of David Bowie’s “Space Odyssey” (Elaine’s favourite song) housed in his mind.

As Wonderstruck energetically whizzes through cities and decades, the film strikes gold as Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret) adapts his own novel, which is tailor-made for the big screen. The book features an ingenious mix of pictures and words while conveying Rose’s story entirely through images and Ben’s through prose. The freedom of cinematic space and time allows the two stories to play in sync, rather than as two separate but complementary entities. The editing by Affonso Gonçalves intertwines the stories as two beats of the same pulse as Ben and Rose walk the same paths and encounter the same things years apart.

Haynes audaciously brings Selznick’s story to life with awe and wonder by giving the storylines two distinct voices and artistic visions. Ben’s 1977 tale is a colourful talkie, while Rose’s narrative is a black and white silent film. Cinematographer Edward Lachmann dazzles with evocative compositions and techniques that draw upon the styles and conventions of films from the respective periods of each narrative. The camera in Wonderstruck is especially inquisitive once it steps into the museum with fluid cinematography inviting viewers to sail through the halls of wonders and take in every artefact and diorama with awe.

Haynes uses the audio to respect Rose’s experience and shrewdly uses silent form convention to convey what it’s like to interact with a vibrant yet mute world. Ben’s narrative, on the other hand, generally favours the sound experience with Haynes preserving the audio of other speakers in the film while Ben struggles to communicate. The worlds of silence and sound are bridged by an extraordinary musical score by Carter Burwell that mixes the enchanting tiptoe rhythms of soundtracks from the silver screen era with hypnotic synths and rock beats from David Bowie’s day. This wall-to-wall score doubles as the dialogue in the silent scenes, while fusing past and present as Wonderstruck melodiously transports us through the ages.

The timing of the music and action of Wonderstruck is a testament to the precision of Haynes’ direction, particularly in drawing out such a captivating performance from the young Simmonds as Rose. Simmonds, who is deaf, effortlessly conveys her character’s enchantment with the movies and museums she takes in while providing an underlying hunger as Rose craves companionship. Like Ben, who eventually finds a friend with a boy at the museum named Jamie (Jaden Michael), she craves someone to share the experience of these magical things.

Wonderstruck also features an excellent silent performance—or two excellent silent performances—by frequent Haynes collaborator Julianne Moore. As screen starlet Lillian Mayhew, who mesmerizes Rose at the theatre with her expressive gestures and pantomimes, the elasticity of Moore’s expressions are a perfect fit for the aesthetics of silent screen acting. The depth of her screen presence is felt strongest, however, when she appears in the final act of the film as a frequent visitor of the museum who holds secrets to Ben’s quest. The film culminates in a deeply moving and cathartic exchange between Ben and his elderly mute companion, and Moore conveys a remarkable range of emotions with the subtlety of her expressions and delicately restrained emotional shifts as the older woman opens her vault of memories and shares her history along to Ben. It’s an extraordinarily rich and moving performance.

Moore’s aged museum lover shares her journey with Ben whiling showing him her own contribution to the museum’s riches. She shows him a handcrafted scale model of New York City designed for the World’s Fair and the waltz through the city offers Ben a tour of his own personal history that resides in places he’s never visited or seen. In this beautiful, breathtaking scene, Haynes creates a treasure trove of storybook images and toys for an animated sequence in the spirit of his cult hit Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story that offers a visual complement to the woman’s legend behind the city. These scrapbook-y snippets and collages of camp inject Haynes’s own personal history as a filmmaker into the lives and memories shared in the film. The film animates the inanimate and shows that all relics are living things as they preserve memories for generations.

Whether you’re seven or seventy-five years old, Wonderstruck is bound to grab you by the heart. This accessible all-ages art film is bound to move and inspire audiences. Relationships with objects only go so far and through the shared experiences of Wonderstruck, one can’t help but feel awe sitting in a room full of movie lovers watching the characters come together looking at stars.

Wonderstruck opens in Toronto on Oct. 27 at the Varsity and expands in the following weeks.