Full as it is with ideas from, and allusions to, Todd Haynes’s other films, Wonderstruck still represents the director’s most dispiriting work to date. This story of children finding themselves through their discovery of art and the past is adapted from Brian Selznick’s Y.A. novel of the same time, so it inevitably bares some resemblance to Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo, which was also a Selznick adaptation. But the better comparison, ludicrous as it sounds, is an entirely different Y.A. adaptation, one released the same year as Scorsese’s: the execrable Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Haynes, with a film light on dialogue and entirely too reliant on Carter Burwell’s impressive, ever-expanding and changing but nonetheless incessant score, draws on the hollow sentimentality of his premise rather than the emotional specificity of his characters’ engagement with the art and history that saves them.
A lot of the reason for that comes down to the oppressive formal control exerted over this story. Both of the film’s central characters are deaf: Ben (Oakes Fegley), a boy growing up in 1970s Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, and Rose (Millicent Simmons), a girl of about the same age but in a parallel storyline set initially in 1920s Hoboken, New Jersey. Because of their ailments, Haynes conducts much of his film as if it were a silent, at least logistically. Rose’s story, shot in black and white, begins in the cinema, with the girl captivated by the fictional silent Daughter of the Storm, starring her estranged actress mother, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Rose, frustrated with her father thrusting deaf manuals on her, runs away to New York City, where her mother is transitioning from silents to the stage in the dawn of the talkies.
There are shades of The Artist here, and it’s hard to imagine why those who took umbrage with the way that film paid homage to the silent era—by exercising a disinterest for its aesthetics and cheaply riffing on period whimsy—are giving Haynes a pass for a similar result here. Wonderstruck was shot by Carol cinematographer Edward Lachman, who captures Rose’s misadventures with the generally stately elegance he brought to Haynes’s 2015 film—and with the same entirely modern grammar. In Carol, the anachronism of Lachman’s intimate, period-defying visuals complemented a challenge to its era’s social mores. Here, the cinematography cuts against what’s otherwise Haynes’s most hermetic fetish object, and for no clear purpose.
The film’s other narrative varies its influences and techniques but also feels even more incoherently motivated in terms of its style. Unlike Rose, Ben isn’t born deaf; in an early scene that flashes on the surrealistic montage of Haynes’s Poison, a reference point never really picked up again, the boy is struck by lightning, which forces him to communicate primarily by pen and paper—and leaves the film prone to tedious shot sequences of a confused-looking Ben and close-ups of his notebook. Ben’s interest in his past and lack of a future at home likewise leads him to the Big Apple, and begins the film’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close-esque treasure-hunt portion, which is ultimately much less engaging than Haynes’s indulgence of a seedy ’70s NYC milieu, as in a montage set to the Etta James’s deep cut “All the Way Down.”
Haynes clearly intends for all of these disparate narrative directions to find a certain thematic and emotional unity through two extended set pieces, one involving the Museum of Natural History in New York and an intuitive crosscutting between Ben and Rose’s simultaneous exploration of the space in two different time periods. But this is also the point in the film when Haynes hurriedly wraps up one of his narrative threads and rushes into his ambitions final act, with a sequence that plays as both the most exciting in the film and its most frustratingly perfunctory. Again drawing on a nostalgia for his earlier work (this time the reference being to his superlative Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story), Haynes packs a lot of information into a visually flamboyant but exasperatingly expository denouement. If nothing else, it feels like the perfect encapsulation of the film and its failings in miniature (quite literally). There’s an increasing sense that the meticulousness of Haynes’s execution overburdens his work’s conceptually exhilarating wonder.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.