Is this a kids’ film for adults? Or an adults’ film for kids? This exquisitely crafted adaptation of an illustrated novel by 'Hugo' author Brian Selznick lands somewhere in the middle, neither fish nor fowl. Yet whoever Todd Haynes’s playful and visually swooning ‘Wonderstruck’ is for, it still feels like a film from the director who made the brilliant 1950s romance ‘Carol’ and the dazzlingly original Bob Dylan biopic ‘I’m Not There’. Many of Haynes’s fans will enjoy unpicking its style, though others might find something frustrating and anti-climactic about where its story leads after some truly fizzing earlier scenes.
As present as ever is Haynes’s love of period detail, as he tells two parallel stories – one about a young girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), in 1927 New Jersey and one about a young boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley), in 1977 Minnesota. Both tales converge in New York, a city to which this feels like a love letter. Rose and Ben are both 12 and both deaf; her since birth, him after a recent run-in with a bolt of lightning. They're also both runaways from comfortable-enough homes, who are seeking missing pieces in the jigsaws of their families; both follow clues that lead them to the same city, 50 years apart.
Familiar, too, is the presence of Haynes’s regular collaborator Julianne Moore (‘Safe’, ‘Far From Heaven’) in two roles, first as a silent-era actress and later as an older woman. And there’s also Haynes’s love of indulging different visual styles and mixing them up in one film: here we get black-and-white silent-era homage for the 1920s scenes; the look of early colour street photography for the 1970s chapter; and even a whole sequence animated with models (nodding right back to Haynes’s late-'80s Karen Carpenter-as-Barbie-doll movie, ‘Superstar’) when the time comes to tie everything together in a big-reveal flashback.
If that all sounds exciting, it is – to an extent. Haynes lends the film an air of childish magic and Carter Burwell’s magnificent front-and-centre score adds energy and character. But there’s also something whimsical, simplistic and ultimately underwhelming about the story that powers this film’s stylistic games – so much so that you end up forgiving it because it’s ‘only’ a kids’ movie. There are stretches that feel ho-hum when everything you see and hear tells you that you should be overwhelmed with emotion. It ends up as a sweet-enough movie, and one that’s full of joy and invention – but also one that feels like a lot of effort has been put into serving a tale that maybe doesn’t fully deserve it.