Because kids grow up to be adults, giving them smart and artful cinema seems just as important to their development as giving them smart and artful books — to give them, essentially, a training ground for learning to approach the world with serious, sustained attention. But kids’ movies that treat their young audience as if they’re smart and capable of appreciating lush visual storytelling are rare.
Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck is filmmaking par excellence and a great film for children to boot. Moving and innovatively told, it may even be too smart for some adults. Kids will get it just fine, though.
The film is based on Brian Selznick’s critically praised novel of the same name, about two deaf 12-year-olds living 50 years apart, in 1927 and 1977. Selznick both wrote the novel and drew its eerie black-and-white illustrations, giving the book an immersive quality that lets the reader sink deep into the story, and that is well-realized in Haynes’s adaptation. (Selznick is also responsible for the Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a similarly lush, immersive book that Martin Scorsese turned into the acclaimed 2011 film Hugo.)
Haynes’s previous films, like Carol and Far From Heaven, while certainly for adults, are deeply emotional and luminous — which makes him a surprisingly perfect fit for this material. Haynes is never afraid of plunging to the bottom of wells of emotions, and he does it so confidently that it never comes across saccharine or sentimental. He doesn’t make chilly, detached films.
Wonderstruck feels like a magical fairytale, though nothing about it is supernatural. Told partly in color and partly in black and white, the film contains long stretches that are virtually silent, with musical accompaniment (composed by Carter Burwell) that sometimes adds atmosphere, and sometimes punctuates what’s happening on screen, similar to how musical accompaniment worked during the silent-movie era.
The story is simple: Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Rose (Millicent Simmonds, who is actually deaf), having lost their mothers in different ways, set off to find the pieces they intuitively know their lives are missing. Even though their stories are set 50 years apart, their respective journeys lead them to the same place: the Museum of Natural History in New York, where they encounter collections of curiosities that contain unexpected revelations.
There’s a lot going on in this film, but that’s in keeping with its organizing concept: that the world is a kind of large-scale cabinet of curiosities (the collections of interesting things people used to keep in their homes eventually evolved into museums), and that our job, as we live, is to keep track of the things and people that are precious to us.
But importantly, though Wonderstruck has an embedded lesson — about how having the courage to both seek answers and connect with others is what makes us grow up — the film doesn’t state that lesson outright. Instead, it trusts its audience, adult and child alike, to feel its theme, to knit themselves into its multigenerational fabric.
And it does so with the kind of artistic integrity that’s rare in films aimed at kids, who too often get the cinematic short stick, talked down to by the grown-ups who think they know what kids want in a movie. Haynes, instead, simply decided to see the world like one.
Wonderstruck premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18. It opens in the US on October 20.