Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck is a coming-of-age tale as curiosity cabinet, a flowchart of narrative fragments that steadily build to a high-concept finale as ludicrous as it is emotionally audacious. The life of a Minnesota preteen, Ben (Oakes Fegley), has added up to little more than a series of tragedies: His mother, Elaine (Michelle Williams), was killed in a car accident, and he’s lost his hearing after being struck by lightning. As a result, he finally opts to go on the lam and hop a bus to New York, where his long-absent father supposedly resides. Haynes juxtaposes Ben’s 1977-set journey against an ostensibly unrelated tale from five decades prior, wherein a deaf-mute girl of the same age, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), takes it upon herself to travel from her father’s New Jersey mansion to Manhattan, where her mother, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), is a famous star of stage and screen.
Well before the convergence of these parallels, Haynes has picked up right where Carol’s resplendent effort to recreate the past left off. Working again with cinematographer Ed Lachmann, costume designer Sandy Powell, and composer Carter Burwell, Haynes opens up both versions of Manhattan in blinking, drowsy increments, from the kid’s-eye perspective of his two protagonists. There’s one moment, wherein Rose nearly loses a crucial piece of paper aboard a ferry crossing the East River, that flamboyantly embodies the film’s discipline in keeping things fixed from Ben and Rose’s points of view: The camera thrashes from right to left while it follows Haynes’s pint-sized heroine as she chases a piece of paper lost in a gust of wind, only able to look up and appreciate the staggering skyline once she’s grabbed it again.
What the photographs of Ruth Orkin and Saul Leiter were to the painstaking tableaux of Carol, the work of Roy DeCarava might be to these 1920s-set sequences. Haynes’s eye for detail is astringent as ever, and he boldly opts to make Rose’s scenes “deaf” as well: completely silent beyond Burwell’s punctuating music, itself an exercise in Aaron Copland-esque affect that suggests the music accompanying remastered versions of silent films whose original scores have been lost to the ages. Ben’s crossing into Manhattan depicts a vibrantly seedy city, throbbing with summer heat, ratcheting up tension by dwarfing a newly deaf child in a vast crowd’s anonymizing bustle. Ben makes friends with a kid named Jamie (Jaden Michael), whose father works at the Museum of Natural History; Rose makes a similar trip and Haynes juxtaposes scenes from both storylines, centering on specific exhibits. Eventually, the characters of the 1927 narrative are reintroduced in their late-adult iterations, and the connection between Ben and Rose is made explicit.
The source material for both Wonderstruck and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo are young-adult novels by Brian Selznick, each one a paean to the 20th century’s moving image (its history inextricable from that of capitalism) as well the invisible, Oz-like figure of the collector-as-curator. But Selznick’s adaptation here is a world apart from John Logan’s screenplay for Hugo, where every plot turn was verbalized by the young leads in the style of a moth-bitten studio melodrama, and Scorsese’s child direction came off absent-minded at best.
Haynes’s touch with both Simmonds and Fegley is quietly extraordinary. An angry blowout between Ben and Jamie late at night in a secret museum room is a nerve-wracking surprise, because it gives shape to the huge emotions that have silently guided Ben’s narrative up to this point. Simmonds is even stronger as Rose, initially seeming like an isolated and lonely figure who nevertheless meshes perfectly in petty arguments with her mother and older brother once she’s tracked them down in New York. And Ben’s encounter with the adult Rose (also played by Moore, as a maternal personality that resonates across time, not unlike Deborah Kerr in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) is at once moving and uniquely suspenseful: Ben yells questions and Rose scribbles her answers on a piece of paper; the drama shifts between characters; and it’s uncertain that anyone—on screen or otherwise—has a clue what will happen next.
The final act reveals Ben’s absent father as both martyr and deadbeat, while reducing Williams to giggling off screen in a few flashbacks; it’s unclear whether Haynes and Selznick are teasing out cruelties of Ben’s family history or papering them over for a feel-good finish. Selznick’s signature interest in restoring a human face to the sunken treasure of the distant past runs against the current moment’s relentlessly monetized nostalgia, which only measures history in pop-culture references dating back a single generation. (Haynes, who came of age in the ’70s, also digs into this a little bit by scoring his emotional climax to Eumir Deodato’s jazz-funk cover of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” bundling the classical, cosmic, and the hilariously dated in one fell swoop.) Wonderstruck’s rhymes across a half-century will probably find more resonance among chest-thumping cinephiles than an actual ticket-buying public, which is a shame, as the film is already a rare artifact for trying something new and daring, as earnest as it is unfashionable.