I have not consumed any of the printed works by writer and illustrator Brian Selznick, so I’m somewhat stymied to explain why two of the greatest filmmakers of my lifetime have made bad movies from his books. Martin Scorsese’s pandering 2011 cinephile dog-whistle Hugo adapted Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and while it garnered awards nominations and dutiful critical acclaim, a pervasive feeling of forced magic permeated that cluttered and overbearing film.
Now Todd Haynes, the man behind Safe, Far from Heaven and I’m Not There, has turned Selznick’s 2011 illustrated novel Wonderstruck into a minor motion picture. This is Haynes’ highly anticipated follow-up to Carol, a film so icily precise and immaculate that interacting with it felt almost forbidden, so the clunky and largely unappealing visuals of Wonderstruck come as a shock. Even the occasional black-and-white cinematography looks murky and lacks texture and depth, although I suspect most critics will slobber at that bell as well.
Preteen actor Oakes Fegley stars as Ben, a recently orphaned Minnesota boy who escapes to New York City to find the father he never met (Michelle Williams cameos as his dead mother). Ben was recently rendered deaf by a freak accident, and in a side story set in 1927, a deaf girl named Rose goes through almost the exact same journey, leaving a miserable life in New Jersey to seek out silent movie actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) in New York.
All narrative roads converge at the American Museum of Natural History, where Rose and Ben both evade authorities and eventually meet a friendly protector. Ben befriends a museum employee’s son named Jamie (Jaden Michael), who gives the starving boy some food and shelters him in a secret room. An old book called Wonderstruck is Ben’s only connection to his father, but the longer that he stays in the museum, the more mysterious connections to his family he finds.
In addition to the persistent pacing and framing issues, the movie inevitably becomes trapped in a back-and-forth structure that undercuts the momentum at every turn. The structure is so ill-conceived that most of the final half-hour gets devoted to the characters reading hand-written notes that fill in all the plot holes. Meanwhile, Haynes seems more interested in indulging in empty, old-soul nostalgia—Wonderstruck genuinely expects you to poop your pants in dizzy awe every time someone watches a movie on celluloid or drops the needle on a vinyl record. Like I said, pandering, dog whistle stuff.
The biggest problem with Wonderstruck is the giant hole in the center of the film that should have been filled with Fegley. As much as the film tries to place us inside Ben’s head, he remains an emotional mystery. I hate to blame a child for the failures of a movie made by adults, especially since Fegley gave a much stronger performance in last year’s Pete’s Dragon, so I will continue to blame Haynes for this entire baffling misstep of a movie.