Cannes 2017: Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck
“Todd Haynes’s films, intellectually rigorous and often profoundly moving, are fractured stories in which alienated, beautiful characters try to find love (or a certain likeness) in the delicate folds of real life,” begins David Ehrlich at IndieWire. “All of this is made possible by a cinema in which aesthetics assume religious force, culture exists on a continuum, and art has a memory. In other words, don’t be fooled that his latest feature is a hyper-faithful adaptation of a half-illustrated children’s novel by The Invention of Hugo Cabret author Brian Selznick—Wonderstruck is nothing if not a Todd Haynes movie. And it’s an exquisite one, at that. Fresh off the greatest triumph of his career (that would be Carol), Haynes is still operating near the peak of his powers, returning to Cannes with an immaculately crafted fable about the ways in which people of all ages learn to break out of their bodies and connect with the world.”
At the Playlist, Jessica Kiang gives Wonderstruck a B+ and sets it up for us: “The main thread of the story follows Ben (Oakes Fegley), a little boy living in the evocatively named Gunflint, Minnesota [in 1977] with his aunt’s family, after his mother (Michelle Williams, in a sliver of a role of which we wish we had more) is killed in a car crash. She had promised to reveal to him the identity of his father ‘when the time is right,’ but died before that time ever came, and the grieving Ben, after he suffers an accident that takes his hearing, runs away to New York City to pursue a clue he’s found about the man’s identity. In parallel, in black and white and entirely without voiced dialogue, we watch the seemingly unrelated but cosmically symmetrical 50-years-earlier story of Rose (appealing newcomer Millicent Simmonds), a young deaf Hoboken girl who also runs away to Manhattan to find a glamorous actress played, in the first of two small but pivotal roles, by Julianne Moore.”
Writing for Screen,Wendy Ide notes that “a semi-animated sequence which fills in the links between the two stories is an achingly potent climax to this idiosyncratic charmer of a film.”
“Haynes, working from a script by Selznick, guides and serves the material with supreme craftsmanship,” grants Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “For a while, he casts a spell. Yet one of the film’s noteworthy qualities is that it creates a nearly dizzying sense of anticipation, and the payoff, regrettably, doesn’t live up to it.”
“Haynes has always been a ravishing visual storyteller,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter, “and his seventh feature is as seductively crafted as anything he’s made, with exquisite contributions from invaluable frequent collaborators including cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg and costumer Sandy Powell. Perhaps even more notable here is the work of composer Carter Burwell, who has created distinct musical moods for the narrative’s parallel threads. . . Affonso Goncalves’s liquid editing gracefully eases back and forth between the dual stories, providing charming juxtapositions.”
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds that “Wonderstruck’s contrivances are gooey and its self-conscious elaborations and withheld mysteries, finally revealed in a narrative voiceover, demand an unearned awe at the supposed cosmic coincidences of essentially benevolent fate—and they incidentally rely heavily on the idea of a child suppressing a certain memory, with no very convincing reason for having done so.”
“It ends up as a sweet-enough movie, and one that’s full of joy and invention,” writes Time Out’s Dave Calhoun, “but also one that feels like a lot of effort has been put into serving a tale that maybe doesn’t fully deserve it.”
Similarly, Richard Lawson for Vanity Fair: “The film is a mighty thing to behold, offering up a lush visual and aural landscape that is frequently breathtaking. So why did I leave the theater so unmoved?”
For the Hollywood Reporter,Gregg Kilday talks with Haynes “about making a movie for Amazon, working with child actors and forswearing dialogue,” while at Sloan Science & Film, Sonia Shechet Epstein interviews Selznick.
Updates: “The film opens with wolves; shooting stars, movie stars, and Ziggy Stardust are used interchangeably; paper boats float in and out before being forgotten; paper models are kind of a thing before becoming very much a thing in the film’s stunning stop-motion finale.” Emily Yoshida at Vulture: “Wonderstruck gestures at a lot, especially between the two narratives, which Haynes flips between with such rapidity that the film isn’t able to find a tonal groove until well past its halfway point.”
“This is a decidedly schematic movie,” writes Blake Williams in a dispatch to Filmmaker, “but I found myself unable to gauge what it was becoming, or what sort of affective terrain it was moving into, at any given moment, and this is true right up to the end—which is loaded with schmaltz but, I admit it, kinda got to me.”
“Haynes sometimes gets dinged for his ‘academic’ approach—for creating intelligent but fussy fetish objects out of the stuff he loves, from classic rock to Douglas Sirk tearjerkers,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “Normally, I’m quick to insist that a vein of genuine feeling rescues his movies from those charges. But there is something affected about Wonderstruck’s vague appropriation of silent-film language. . . By the curiously flat finale, when Haynes has begun to pull all the dangling plot strands together, any shot at a Spielbergian (or maybe just Selznickian) crescendo has passed. Wonderstruck is too singular to ignore, especially when compared to the lion’s share of personality-free kid-lit adaptations. But I’m afraid, at least upon first look, that I more distantly admired its craftsmanship than swooned for its pleasures.”
“Constantly shifting and aligning motifs makes for generous subtext in this sweet, poignant film which takes pains to solve all of its mysterious wonders nice and neatly before delivering an ultimate fade out,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “Comparatively, Wonderstruck is also Haynes’s least ‘queer’ film in style, tone, and substance, focusing on development and discovery, communication and reconciliation.”
“Perhaps more at home with the slow unraveling of a decadent love story or complex mind, Haynes fails to impart Wonderstruck with the sort of zip that gives young persons’ capers like these the pacing they require,” writes Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage.
But at Little White Lies,David Jenkins proposes that Wonderstruck is “the type of woozy, youth-oriented fantasy flick that plays like an unearthed relic from the ’70s counterculture movement. It’s a family movie aimed at people who didn’t grow up with a television in their house, or went out collecting gemstones instead of playing Nintendo. It’s a bookish film for bookish kids, but one so suffused with heady nostalgia (for movies, relationships and physical objects) that it’s extremely tough not to be touched by its entirely noble intentions.”
Updates, 5/19: “With extraordinary control, Mr. Haynes fluidly toggles between time periods . . . holding you rapt with a tricky puzzle of a story that doesn’t wholly reveal itself until tears are filling your eyes,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.
“There’s a fascinating tension between Haynes’s clinical, meticulous approach and the conventions (and limitations) of the story he’s telling,” writes Tim Grierson for Paste. “But in the process, Wonderstruck emerges as an exceedingly intelligent children’s film that values the brains of its young characters—as well as the kids’ who might see it. This may not be Haynes’ best work, but it’s the one most likely to make you cry.”
“Selznick's book mandates that there must be a film-within-the-film, which gives Haynes a chance to serve up a perfect pastiche of Victor Sjöström’s 1928 silent film, The Wind,” notes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “It only lasts a minute or so, with Moore-as-[silent-era movie star Lillian] Mayhew giving her best Lillian Gish impression. When an emotional Rose departs the cinema, she is assaulted by banners announcing the imminent arrival of the talkies. The poignancy of this development for a deaf film-lover is not lost on Haynes, but then little is.”
Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com: “The film’s collision of concepts: the parallel stories; the silent movie conventions; and the theme of the museum as a cabinet of wonders where secrets are revealed, results in occasional wonderful moments, but also in a tedium of ticking off parallels until they merge through coincidence.”
“In a tale of people trying to discover why and how they might belong, Wonderstruck firmly asserts itself as a new adventure in Todd Haynes’s artistic journey, while still very much true to a thread that connects the majority of his works,” writes David Acacia for the International Cinephile Society. “Self-discovery and purpose are pillars to the queer sensibility, though relevant themes to everyone, and by opening his filmmaking to a more general audience, he may have appropriately made his most sweetly innocent, delicate, and inclusive film to date.”
Updates, 5/20: For the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang,Wonderstruck is “the rare all-ages movie that illuminates the inner lives of children with warmth, intelligence and nary a hint of condescension. The weave so impressive, it feels almost quibblesome to note that it doesn’t always hold together. . . . But even that flaw bespeaks an uncommon level of ambition. This big-hearted movie reaches for the stars, and it’s more than OK that its reach exceeds its grasp.”
“I’m told that Wonderstruck hews pretty close to its source material, which makes it all the more startling that the film seems so personal,” writes Bilge Ebiri for the Village Voice. “Both of these kids are enacting variations on the same, self-actualizing journeys of obsession so many people—creative and otherwise—have taken. I’d love to screen this film alongside Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine, another nakedly heartfelt work about finding your circle and your passion, and all the struggles that come with discovering (and holding onto) your place in the world. There is so, so much packed in here; Wonderstruck is simultaneously the densest and loosest film Haynes has made.”
“Wonderstruck embraces so many shimmery, evanescent ideas, it’s a marvel that any one picture—let alone one you can take your kids to—can hold them,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “This is a romance of New York City, a love letter to the pleasure of making anything by hand (with paper or paint or even, possibly, film), a story of finding the place where you belong, and of finding your way to the people who understand you.”
“Wonderstruck is a lovely, lovely thing,” writes Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “It abounds with moments to cherish. But it doesn’t quite earn the emotional payoff that it conspicuously seeks.”
Updates, 5/21: “Details of the city, whether the shithole that is 1977’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, or the generous, unheard assistance of a Wall Street stranger in ’27 ring true of texture and feeling,” grants Notebook editor Daniel Kasman, “but Wonderstruck stumbles again and again, first by casting two young actors whose presence seems more appropriate as extras for different decades, then by poorly incorporating silent film styles in Rose’s section, and further by pushing heavy soundtracks and visual fades to create an all too slippery, impersonal flow of lostness and a desire to discover and understand.”
For IndieWire, Chris O’Falt talks with cinematographer Edward Lachman about capturing the look of the 20s and 70s.
Update, 5/22: Writing for the Daily Beast, Richard Porton notes that “a critic risks seeming slightly misanthropic if he doesn’t embrace the movie’s self-consciously wondrous conclusion in which the apparently tenuous connections between Ben and Rose become clear and the implications of the Oscar Wilde aphorism that adorns Ben’s bedroom wall in Minnesota—‘We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars’—is explained for our delectation. Without giving any plot details away, it should suffice to say the stories coalesce in a slightly gooey manner. . . . With the full awareness that Wonderstruck may soon be venerated as a modern classic, I have to admit that, as much as I respect Haynes’s effort to outdo his own considerable achievements, it often comes off as a dutiful, overly schematic academic exercise.”
“While Carol’s power was built on incremental emotional development, Wonderstruck stacks the deck so that it lives or dies by revelations in the last 15 minutes,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman for Sight & Sound. “Sadly, despite Julianne Moore’s ability to make small actions oceanically moving . . . there are few surprises in this film’s disappointingly saccharine climax.”
Updates, 5/23: “Haynes is particularly keen on vaunting the need for children to develop curiosity,” writes Sight & Sound editor Nick James, “but Wonderstruck goes about it so sentimentally and pedantically, telling us all the time how wonderful each diorama or document or object is, that you feel hectored long before the end.”
“What’s particularly striking about the film is Haynes’s effort to combine a kaleidoscope of ideas with a traditional, heartwarming kids’ movie,” finds Miriam Bale, writing for W. “And that’s, unfortunately, where it fails, or feels forced. He tries to hit the notes of this genre as if it were something formulaic, as if Steven Spielberg’s E.T. were a roadmap of all the emotional beats. But the best children's movies are strange, not conventional.”
“In process of making this movie, by working with kids, working with deaf kids, showing cuts of the film to kids as we were making it, they taught me everything I needed to know about making this film,” Haynes tells Stewart Clarke in the Hollywood Reporter. “They will always be more radical and surprising and open than adults.”
Update, 5/24: Haynes “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,” finds Sam C. Mac at the House Next Door. “There’s an increasing sense that the meticulousness of Haynes’s execution overburdens his work’s conceptually exhilarating wonder.”
But Eugene Hernandez, dispatching to Film Comment, argues that this “new film pulls from familiar aspects of the Haynes universe, but stands apart as a singular work and one of the best films of the year so far.”
Update, 7/4: In her Cannes report for Film Comment,Amy Taubin writes that Wonderstruck “earns its title by evoking the power of cinema as a time machine and as the language in which the history of the last century was written.”
“Wonderstruck is a richly rewarding experience, and its culminating scene, featuring one of Julianne Moore’s finest moments, packs quite an emotional wallop,” adds Kent Jones.
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