Worlds collide in unusually gentle fashion in “Wonderstruck,” director Todd Haynes’ film version of the lavishly illustrated 2011 Brian Selznick best-seller — a book for introspective puzzle fans of all ages.
I enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” an adaptation of Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which like “Wonderstruck” told a tale of intrepid children uncovering the real stories of their disillusioned elders. But Haynes’ film is the more emotionally fulfilling experience. Just about any age of moviegoer will find something beguiling in its intertwining narratives, adapted for the screen by Selznick and brought to life by several key collaborators.
The key-est of the key: cinematographer Ed Lachman, Haynes’ frequent collaborator, here shooting on 35 millimeter film in black and white for the 1927 scenes, and on color stock for the storyline set in 1977. “Wonderstruck” begins in rural Minnesota in 1977. Young Ben (Oakes Fegley) has lost his hearing in a lightning strike, not long after the death of his librarian mother (Michelle Williams). She never told Ben about his absent father’s identity.
A mysterious New York City souvenir book belonging to Ben’s mother contains a clue to that identity. So Ben embarks on a cross-country genealogical mission. Soon he’s getting off the bus at the Port Authority in midtown Manhattan; to this Minnesota boy, it’s a new world, and Lachman gets the colors and textures magically right.
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The 1927 scenes are no less otherworldly to young Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a deaf Hoboken resident likewise yearning to connect with her birth mother, a famous diva played by Julianne Moore. Crucial to the story, Moore also plays Rose as an adult in the ’70s half of “Wonderstruck.” When Ben, with the help of new friend Jamie (Jaden Michael), discovers how everything connects in this elaborately embroidered series of reveals, both storylines become a single weave. Selznick’s obvious interest in New York lore takes us deep inside the American Museum of Natural History (a wolf diorama echoes Ben’s dreams of a wolf attack) and Queens Museum, where the Panorama of the City of New York, overseen by the adult Rose, contains crafty solutions to everything Ben has been wondering about his whole life.
Relayed this way, in terms of plot, the movie sounds like a knotty, forbidding thing. It’s not, really. The central storytelling notions are inspired: The Rose half of the story is a silent movie, allied to Rose’s lifelong deafness, and the Ben half is filled with sound, since he is newly deaf and learning to communicate in a new way. Composer Carter Burwell’s score, plaintive and vivid without bigfooting the action, adds a great deal. The performances, including a sweetly sincere and easygoing turn from the deaf actress Simmonds, become the audience’s way into “Wonderstruck.”
There are times, as there were in “Hugo,” when you’re aware of the characters more as puzzle pieces. But Haynes has always favored a quietude in his movies, and he’s extremely well-suited to this material. It’s a fairy tale full of earned sentiment.
Rated: PG for thematic elements, smoking. Starring: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds. Director: Todd Haynes. Running time: 115 minutes. Theater: Flicks.