When I’m watching a film by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I’m Not There), I’m usually too caught up in the director’s formal decisions to think about the emotions of the characters. The deeper engagement comes later, after the movie has sunk in and I can separate the aesthetic from the themes. So it goes with Haynes’s latest, Wonderstruck, which opened in Chicago last Friday. Like his debut feature, Poison, Wonderstruck alternates between separate narrative lines set in different eras, with each given its own visual style. One story, set in 1927, is made to resemble a sleek silent melodrama; the other, set in 1977, has a grittier look reminiscent of American films made around that time. The influence of silent melodrama is palpable in other ways—the plot is driven by outlandish coincidences, and the characters are defined in broad strokes. Though it’s always clear as to what the characters are feeling, Haynes and screenwriter Brian Selznick (adapting his own YA novel) emphasize the narrative form above any emotional content. Wonderstruck feels like an intellectual puzzle, inviting viewers to identify parallels between the stories and guess how they might intersect.
Some of the parallels are obvious. Both stories follow a deaf child who’s about 12 years old as he or she travels to New York City in search of a missing parent. And in both, the American Museum of Natural History provides the site of a major plot point. A sense of curiosity pervades both tales, channeling the wonder both children experience as they discover the city. Wonderstruck is very much about its title, presenting public transportation, tall buildings, and crowds of people as they might appear in a child’s imagination. The city is practically a character, full of exciting opportunities and dark secrets, and the protagonists explore these over the course of their personal missions. The film makes one conscious of how these things take root in the minds of children—one never feels like he or she’s looking at New York City, but rather a fanciful interpretation of it.
What isn’t as obvious is how melancholy both stories are; the sense of adventure overshadows the emotional need that drives both children to undertake their journeys. Ben, the hero of the 1977 tale, begins the film mourning his mother, who’s recently died. He’s never known his father, and when he discovers a book in his mother’s collection he believes may have belonged to the strange man, he takes off for New York (where the book was purchased) in the hopes of finding his one remaining parent. The heroine of the 1927 story, Rose, is a poor little rich girl in Hoboken, New Jersey, living with a cold, disciplinarian father (James Urbaniak). She finds escape by keeping a scrapbook devoted to a famous actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore); on a whim, she heads to New York one day in hopes of making contact with her idol. Rose isn’t alone in the world like Ben is, but her loneliness may be more pronounced—she doesn’t seem to have any friends, and she keeps to herself much of the time.
Rose ends up meeting her idol, though her encounter is disappointing. Ben, on the other hand, doesn’t meet his father, but he makes a friend at the natural history museum and finds a sense of familial connection by the end of the film. The satisfaction Ben experiences might distract from the isolation he and Rose experience throughout the movie, but only for so long. Reflecting on Wonderstruck after I watched it, I became acutely aware of the fact that no friendship will bring back Ben’s parents or provide Rose with a happy household. I also realized that the longing for interpersonal connection, which is so central to Wonderstruck, reverberates throughout Haynes’s work. It’s implicit in the nonintersecting stories of Poison (the characters are isolated from each other as well as themselves) and the portraits of solitary fame in Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There; it’s also explicit in the unsuccessful love stories of Far From Heaven and Carol. In focusing on the loneliness of children—and despite the graceful surface tone—Wonderstruck may be Haynes’s saddest feature to date.
In Wonderstruck, wonderment serves as a coping mechanism for personal tragedies. Haynes and Selznick visualize this idea in their depiction of the natural history museum—filled with artifacts from all over the planet, the museum is a place to get lost in. It’s rather like the structure of Wonderstruck itself, rife with information and winding passages and speaking to a sense of curiosity most of us experience as children. There’s a dark side to that curiosity, however—as the film suggests, giving oneself over to curiosity means abandoning a bit of oneself as well.