NYFF 2017: Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck

On Film / The Daily — Oct 7, 2017

“In just two adaptations,” begins Benedict Seal at Vague Visages, “author Brian Selznick has developed a reputation for inspiring intelligent and magical children’s films. After John Logan adapted The Invention of Hugo Cabaret for Martin Scorsese’s wonderful Hugo, Selznick has been upgraded to screenwriter to adapt his own novel for Todd Haynes’s lovely Carol follow-up, Wonderstruck,” which “takes on New York in two gorgeously realized time periods. In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is living with his aunt after losing his mother. When a freak accident leaves him deaf, he journeys to New York City in search of his absent father. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) has lived with deafness her whole life and travels to the Big Apple when she discovers that her favorite actress (Julianne Moore) is performing on Broadway.”

“A sculptor of beautiful and strange objects that fit into very particular corners and crevices of history, Haynes was born to make a movie about historical curation,” writes Michael Koresky in Film Comment. “Haynes’s geographical and temporal settings are never circumstantial; they’re everything. His Safe (1995) and television miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) aren’t merely set, respectively, in ’80s and ’30s Los Angeles—each excavates its own time and place, with a remarkable attention to physical detail and an intellectual fascination with what those times and places mean retrospectively, in the crawl of history. Now imagine those two films cut together to prompt a dialogue between their two eras and you might have something like the experience of Wonderstruck.Koresky also has a good long talk with Haynes, cinematographer Ed Lachman, and production designer Mark Friedberg.

Wonderstruck “jumps styles—not just in Haynes’s camerawork and editing, which hop between silent-era expressionism and handheld Seventies grit, but also in Carter Burwell’s city symphony–like score, which seems to borrow from the whole history of twentieth-century music,” writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “Like its characters, the movie feels like it’s constantly searching—for an emotional resolution, for answers to its narrative mysteries, for a style to call its own. . . . By the end, I felt like I was watching not just a coming-of-age tale based on a children’s book, but an intimate, staggering apologia for the director’s whole eclectic career.”

“For all of Haynes’s visual splendor—and this movie has plenty—he can’t find an efficient way to dramatize this story,” finds Jesse Hassenger in Brooklyn Magazine. “Though the kids are pretty good, they’re stuck in a story taking blind faith in Selznick’s belief that there’s nothing more exciting than kids exploring carefully curated rooms. Hugo achieved the desired wonder through sheer will of Scorsese’s virtuosic 3D filmmaking. That never happens here, though the movie makes a play for it in its interminable final stretch.”

“I wanted to feel like I could create something with as much love and attention to detail and history and character as I’ve given to my adult dramas, but something that kids could be able to experience,” Haynes tells Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage. And Variety’s Kristopher Tapley interviews Lachman.

Earlier: Reviews from Cannes.

Meantime, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York is staging a series running from October 13 through 22, Inspiring Wonderstruck. “On the opening weekend, the Museum will present a preview screening of Wonderstruck with Selznick, Friedberg, and costume designer Sandy Powell in person, followed by a book signing with Selznick.”

Updates: “What the photographs of Ruth Orkin and Saul Leiter were to the painstaking tableaux of Carol, the work of Roy DeCarava might be to [the] 1920s-set sequences,” suggests Steve Macfarlane at Slant. “Haynes’s eye for detail is astringent as ever, and he boldly opts to make Rose’s scenes ‘deaf’ as well: completely silent beyond Burwell’s punctuating music, itself an exercise in Aaron Copland-esque affect that suggests the music accompanying remastered versions of silent films whose original scores have been lost to the ages. Ben’s crossing into Manhattan depicts a vibrantly seedy city, throbbing with summer heat, ratcheting up tension by dwarfing a newly deaf child in a vast crowd’s anonymizing bustle. . . . Wonderstruck’s rhymes across a half-century will probably find more resonance among chest-thumping cinephiles than an actual ticket-buying public, which is a shame, as the film is already a rare artifact for trying something new and daring, as earnest as it is unfashionable.”

Even has posted a brief excerpt from an essay that appears in its eighth issue in which Max Nelson argues that Wonderstruck is “the first film he’s made in which the business of fitting out domestic spaces like Jamie’s attic or Ben’s bedroom —designing them, dressing them, decorating them—proceeds smoothly, without devolving into an occasion for anyone to be stigmatized, excluded, or caught in a social transgression. The threat of such exposure has always been an important source of energy in Haynes’s movies: it pushed his Dylan and Bowie figures into more extreme forms of self-reinvention and drove the wives and mothers in Safe, Far From Heaven, and Carol to similar extremes of heartbreak or desperation. No comparable source of drama emerges in Wonderstruck to take its place. And so for the first time we have a Haynes film in which no one seems to desire anything terribly off-limits.”

Update, 10/9: At Reverse Shot, Chris Wisniewski argues that “Wonderstruck, as in so many of Todd Haynes’s movies like Carol, Far from Heaven, and, perhaps most directly Velvet Goldmine, which also nods at Oscar Wilde, functions as an investigation of queerness—though here, queerness is not figured along the lines of sexual orientation or gender identity so much as the otherness that comes with being differently abled and, even more immediately, with a sense of loss.”

Updates, 10/14: “Haynes’s touch, especially in the stitch-perfect reconstruction of bygone times, is as sure as it was in Far from Heaven,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “Julianne Moore, the star of that movie, is equally involving here; she plays two roles, or four if you count those played by Lillian, and utters precisely one audible word—‘Help.’ She radiates an eager sympathy, in her sign language and in the unguarded warmth of expression on her face. And yet, despite these virtues, Wonderstruck fails to convince, so intent is Haynes on banishing loose ends and slotting each coincidence into place. The result is itself a kind of diorama: exquisitely detailed, assembled with infinite care, but lacking the breath of life.”

Wonderstruck is something of a science experiment in film form,” writes Soheil Rezayazdi for Filmmaker. “It’s an ambitious experiment, but for a story that strives for emotional transcendence Haynes’s cinephile approach distances rather than draws us in. Too often, the film devolves into a tedious exercise in craft, as if Haynes received a number of aesthetic prompts (à la The Five Obstructions) and worked backwards to build a story.”

Updates, 10/22: “Part of the pleasure of Mr. Haynes’s films . . . is how he deploys intellectual distance as he plays with cinematic form, considers identity and upends clichés,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “Elsewhere, this can come across as dreary, even programmatic. Yet because Mr. Haynes also leads with his characters rather than his ideas, his films gather force until, at times with near-violent suddenness, they become devastatingly, skin-prickingly alive. In Mr. Haynes’s Far From Heaven, his combination of playfulness and seriousness translates into a homage to Sirkian melodrama that turns into a thrilling example of the very same. And, in Wonderstruck, a children’s story about finding your place in the world, in time becomes a Haynesian exploration of identity, desire and imagination.”

In the Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri finds it “startling that the film seems so personal for Haynes—it seems to combine many elements from his career and life, including an extended nod to the DIY puppetry of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. 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 alongside Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine, another nakedly honest work about finding your circle and your passion, and all the struggles that come with discovering (and holding on to) your place in the world. There is so much packed in here; Wonderstruck is simultaneously the densest and loosest film Haynes has made.”

“This is an intricate, high-reaching piece of filmmaking, and there are places where the mechanics don't run as smoothly as they should,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “But the film's beauty runs so deep, it doesn't matter. Wonderstruck embraces so many shimmery, evanescent ideas, it's a marvel that any picture—let alone one you can take your kids to—can hold them.”

At the A.V. Club, A. A. Dowd finds that “for all of the time-warp elegance, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Haynes has authored more of an exercise than a movie: a lovingly assembled flashback pastiche whose emotional core remains oddly theoretical. ‘Academic’ is a word often hurled by the director’s harshest critics, who accuse him of sculpting intelligent but remote fetish objects out of the stuff he loves, from classic rock to classic tearjerkers. What usually saves his films from that charge are the performances, from the quiet tempest of feeling Moore conjures at the center of Far From Heaven’s Douglas Sirk facsimile to the distaff-Dylan swagger Cate Blanchett brings to her scenes in I’m Not There. Devoid of any such anchoring presence, Wonderstruck is sometimes as purely decorative as The Artist in its vague approximation of silent-era grammar.”

“It’s about sights and sounds, textures and colors, objects, feelings, and memories,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. “The movie opens with a boy dreaming of wolves: a blue, ravenously assembled collage of images that bespeak horror as much as wonder. It ends two hours later with a family history told museum-style, through dioramas and moving figurines, as if the story of one’s ancestry were both living history and exhibit. Everything explored in between—from the encroaching death of silent movies and the New York City blackout of 1977 to a sensitive study of hearing and deaf communication across the century—is crafted with the same sense of affection and daring as the movie’s more experimental bits.”

“While some stretches of the film feel a bit too crafted, and make viewers work to make connections, that all falls away in a final sequence in which Wonderstruck becomes yet another type of movie, one better experienced than described,” writes Keith Phipps at Uproxx. “When Burwell’s music swells as the strands start to come together and Haynes and Selznick fully reveal the ways in which Wonderstruck has woven its thematic and narrative threads together, it’s magnificent. The patience pays off.”

On the other hand, Nick Schager in Film Journal International: “The fact that, amidst so much cloying whimsy, Wonderstruck still manages to strike a moving climactic chord speaks volumes about Haynes’s way with actors (he elicits competent turns from all his leads), as well as his genuine, heartfelt belief in the movies’ power to help forge connections—between reality and fantasy, grief and elation, memory and experience. Unfortunately, however, any final poignancy is far too little, too late for a film that’s too taken with its own oh-so-imaginative flights of fancy.”

For Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey, “what’s ultimately so wonderful about Wonderstruck is the same thing that was so charming about Hugo, or Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are: the way that, in shifting to a very different audience than usual, these adult-oriented filmmakers discovered their most universal themes, ideas, and emotions.”

“The film isn't as inert as Hugo, Martin Scorsese's paralytically pastel adaptation of an earlier (and similar) Selznick fable,” writes Mark Jenkins for NPR. “But its taxidermied scenario never comes to life.”

For Christy Lemire at RogerEbert.com, “the emotional payoff just isn’t there, despite a lengthy build-up of cosmic proportions, which ultimately renders the entire effort a twee exercise in style over substance.”

At In Review Online, Alex Engquist argues that “Haynes hasn’t so much lost touch with his roots in Wonderstruck as he has consciously planted them in a different place, recasting a fascination with the past as an attempt to fill gaps in personal and collective memory.”

Fresh interviews with Haynes: Sean Fennessey (Ringer), Hunter Harris (Vulture), and Nick Newman (Film Stage). Scout Tafoya’s videoed his interviews with the cast for RogerEbert.com (8’11”). And at WhereToWatch, Susannah Edelbaum talks with costume designer Sandy Powell.

Updates, 10/25: The New Yorker’s Richard Brody finds that Wonderstruck “derives its entire identity from its resolution; avoiding spoilers is both necessary and limiting, yet the sheer centrality of the dénouement to all that came before is itself indicative of the movie’s over-all artistic failure.”

For Matthew Kennedy, “the inherent emotionality of the story is muted by so many relics in the museum’s Cabinet of Wonders, or by a visit to the amazing 1964 New York City miniature housed at the Queens Museum. Haynes spares us slack-jawed bug-eyed Spielbergian reactions shots, but he also denies us deep emotional engagement. The visuals shadow and overwhelm the actors as they wander the bustling Haynes-Selznick landscapes.”

Grace Lovelace, also writing for Bright Lights, notes that “the name Todd Haynes summons a clutch of associations, among them flawless craftsmanship; extreme immersion in certain historical periods, mainly American; melodrama; rock ’n’ roll; reverence for cinematic narrative traditions along with a taste for testing and expanding those narratives by introducing queer sexuality. Wonderstruck seems a retreat from some of these established themes, in that it’s not set in the fifties and, as a PG-rated, child-oriented adventure film, instead pursues the marvelous and the wondrous. In a Q&A following an early showing of the film in Hollywood, Haynes confirmed it was precisely this difference from his previous work that drew him to the material. Landing as it does in this Autumn of the Patriarch (cross fingers, knock wood), the film strikes this viewer as a welcome respite, and furthermore, a film you can bring your child to without feeling like you are financing a letch sacrificing a virgin.”

Update, 10/26: “The cultural artifacts that so captivate Ben and Rose—dusty scientific exhibits and the exaggerated role-playing of silent movie divas—don't fascinate real 12-year-olds at all, only middle-aged art consumers enchanted by the past,” writes Kelly Vance in the East Bay Express. “And so, when we follow Ben deep into the museum's cabinet of curiosities or watch Rose tiptoeing up to her idol, we're trying to envision antique wonders of the world through the eyes of long-ago children, as we imagine them. The maudlin mood conjures up a fairy tale twice removed. Wonderstruck becomes a curiosity in its own right.”

Update, 10/27: “‘Filmmaking magic’ would be weak praise for the art that Todd Haynes brings to Wonderstruck,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “I wanted to love this movie,” but the “system of motifs and correspondences is so airtight—as sometimes happens with Haynes—that, despite the best efforts of Julianne Moore (a wonder in herself), I ultimately felt all the satisfaction of having watched somebody else solve a crossword puzzle.”

Updates, 11/3: “Reflecting on Wonderstruck,” writes Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader, “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.”

“Haynes’s gobsmackingly great 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There cut so fluidly around six different tones and timelines that it’s kinda shocking how badly he fumbles the juxtapositions of just two within Wonderstruck,” writes Sean Burns. “The movie lurches between eras without ever settling into a rhythm, leaving crucial plot details infuriatingly obscured.”

“Once Wonderstruck’s stories finally sync up,” writes Andrew Wright in the Stranger, “it’s possible to forgive quite a bit. Set within the Queens Museum’s astounding model of New York, Wonderstruck’s finale finds Haynes in top form, depicting loss, memories, and hope in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Sheer movie magic should never be discounted, even when it takes a while to arrive.”

Wonderstruck is a thing to behold,” writes Marjorie Baumgarten in the Austin Chronicle, “even if it seems at times that the parts don’t quite add up to the whole. Screw math: Sometimes the sum total isn’t the totality.”

Slate’s Dana Stevens talks with producer Christine Vachon about working with Haynes on their eighth feature together.

Update, 11/12: “While Wonderstruck is Haynes’s most innocuous film in terms of content (it’s rated PG), the structure harkens back to his 1991 movie Poison, the New Queer Cinema entry that put him on the map,” writes Steve Erickson for the Nashville Scene.Poison cut back and forth between pastiches of B-movie horror and documentary and a Jean Genet-inspired depiction of homoerotic life in jail. One of his best efforts, I’m Not There, tackled the life and art of Bob Dylan by creating a ‘biopic’ that broke all the rules of the generally banal subgenre, casting six different actors—including Cate Blanchett and African-American child actor Marcus Carl Franklin—to play the singer at various stages of his life. It would be great to report that Wonderstruck works equally well. Alas, the concept works better than the execution, and it’s the first Haynes film that could be fairly described as twee.”

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