by Will Ross
There are many reasons why Wonderstruck fails so disastrously, why it is by a wide margin Todd Haynes’s worst film to date and an eye-popping come-down from his widely-beloved Carol, but the most important reason presents itself fairly early: its lead actor can’t act. 12-year-old Oakes Fegley, given the always-risky burden of carrying a film on a child’s shoulders, gives every one of his lines the most on-the-nose, subtext free reading possible, and given that the film revolves around his character’s attempts to find his father and his — I don’t know, discovery of wonder? — along the way, this instantly limits the film’s reach. He is never believable as a real person.
Yet, we must believe: believe that when Ben’s mother (Michelle Williams in a brief role that makes little use of her talent) dies without ever having told him of his father, he is consumed with frustration and driven to seek out the truth; believe that this drive persists after a random strike of lightning renders him deaf, to the extent that he spirits himself to New York City circa 1977 to an address he finds on a bookmark; believe that he is deaf at all. The last point is a particular strain; he never shows much concern or alarm at his sudden disability, except to tell a newfound New York friend, Jamie (Jaden Michael), that he is only scared “sometimes. Mostly, it’s quiet.” If there is some personal exchange of feeling or epiphany between these two, it is totally obscured beyond the level of plot, for Michael’s performance as an enthusiastic but socially insecure sidekick is even stiffer and less lifelike than Fegley’s lead, making their interactions awkward and perfunctory.
It’s the writing, however, that brings their budding friendship to the level of unintentional comedy. Brian Selznick, adapting his own novel, is excruciatingly tied to pedantry in every dialogue exchange. The number of times Jamie forgets he’s speaking to a deaf person, is told “I can’t hear you,” writes down his message, and has that message repeated back aloud is stunning, and Haynes, for his part, never truncates nor varies the mechanics of this process. For a film so obsessed with capturing every stumble of communications with the hearing impaired, it falls into bizarre, frustrating tics, for instance: every time Jamie writes a new message on a sheet of notepad paper, he will flip to an entirely new page, regardless of whether he’s used half of the last one or even one tenth of it. It’s a wonder (heh heh) that nobody runs out of paper in this movie.
In attempting to explain the film’s central dramatic collapse, I’ve delayed mentioning its central narrative conceit: for the first two thirds, Ben’s odyssey to New York City in search of his father is frequently intercut with another child’s journey to the city, fifty years earlier. The young girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), cuts off her own hair and runs away to New York in search of an actor she seems to idolize (though the full truth of her obsession is more personal than that). Simmonds, in her acting debut, delivers a vastly better performance than the other children in Wonderstruck’s cast, if for no other reason than she has no dialogue: her character has been deaf from birth.
That’s where the commendable aspects of the earlier period material evaporate. While the 70s sequences adopt a fairly standard mixture of contemporary film grammar —colour photography diegetic sounds, spoken dialogue, and film score — the 1927 sequences signal their period by using grainy black and white film stock and stripping out all sound except for Carter Burwell’s musical score. And on that level alone, the 20s scenes do not work, for Burwell follows up his uninspired, ill-fitting music for Carol with a pastiche of musical scores for silent film comedies. Burwell adapts his style to this task like oil to water. For one thing, the tone is not comedic, making his frequent Mickey Mousing (conspicuously matching moments of the score to the exact moments an action happens) feel frivolous and hollowly emphatic. For another, his arrangement and instrumentation is awkward and often distracting, as Burwell frequently places odd musical sounds in the extreme left or right of the mix, distracting one’s ears from the events unfolding on the screen ahead. The more varied soundscape of the later period makes the score less actively distracting during Ben’s portions of the film, but Burwell as usual has no ability to emotionally modulate a moment beyond increasing the volume of his arrangements.
But there are fundamental visual issues with the 20s material as well, for in spite of its partial adoption of silent film grammar, it’s also insistent on maintaining certain standards of modern filmmaking, especially in its lack of intertitles and distinctly modern sensibility of camera placement and cutting, a sensibility that particularly favours synchronized sound in its use of shot-reverse-shot setups for dialogue. This would be more bearable if Haynes displayed much in the way of inspiration with those modern camera placements, but there are hardly any moments in Wonderstruck when the placement of the frame or the use of a particular lens feels anything but functional.
But the last and most critical flaw with the 20s material and its parallel play with the primary narrative of the 70s is that it has no reason to be. Not only are the beats of each child’s New York Story frequently repeated in full, they seem to be building towards a momentous connection that amounts to an underwhelming familial reveal in the 70s portion of the film. There’s little reason to parallel these two stories, except to demonstrate a parallel, and even the lack of diegetic sound as a signifier of deafness is inconsistent between them, a mark of loosely-justified gimmickry.
By the time the film ends in a risible sequence that mixes elaborate dioramas, rapid cutting, lighting flourishes, and a barrage of questions that ought to be rhetorical but aren’t (“What is this” and “What’s going on” and “How did you find us”) — none of which has a discernible intent — it becomes clear that it's not just the cribs from silent cinema: the whole effort is no more than a series of underdeveloped structural and stylistic concepts, tied together through a contrived emotional non sequitur of a plot twist. That I haven’t touched on many of Wonderstruck’s smaller failures of craft — nonsensical eyelines and blocking, egregiously unnecessary flashbacks, conspicuous loose ends — speaks to a project that I suspect either got away from Haynes early on, or one that he was never invested in in the first place.