If I were to whip up a list of the directors I expected to make movies for children in 2017, Todd Haynes’ name would be somewhere near the bottom. The art house darling behind ‘Safe’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Far from Heaven’ never gave any indication of courting that audience or even having an interest in such things. Yet here were are. He’s made one (sort of) and it’s pretty good (sort of).
On a weird level, there’s a precedence for this bizarre shift in subject matter from Haynes. His latest film ‘Wonderstuck’ is an adaptation of a novel by Brian Selzick, who also wrote ‘Hugo’, which was turned into a movie by unexpected kiddie auteur Martin Scorsese. Apparently, something about the author’s work makes directors who previously never went near family audiences want to do something PG-rated. The story also allows Haynes to wallow in period detail, something he has a sweet tooth for. Two periods, even.
The movie spins two parallel narratives. One is about a young girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) in 1927 New Jersey, and the other is about a young boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) in 1977 Minnesota. Both are somewhat troubled deaf kids missing a part of their family that they find in a particularly romantic vision of New York City. Julianne Moore appears in separate roles in both stories (meaning that she plays four parts in two movies released this week) and Michelle Williams plays one. Obviously, the two tales have a mysterious connection, though it takes a while to get there.
All of that might make ‘Wonderstruck’ sound like a film overflowing with ideas and narrative barely contained in a two-hour running time to make the kids happy. That’s not really the case. This is still a Todd Haynes movie, and that filmmaker isn’t particularly interested in making things easy for his audience, even if he is a master of his craft. The film is beautiful to behold on a technical level. Each story has a very specific cinematic aesthetic that Haynes crafts with an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail. The 1920s section is shot in lush black-and-white in a silent film homage while the 1970s material has the faded color glow of that era’s filmmaking. The two stories connect in an animated sequence that’s even more meticulously stylized than what proceeds it. The whole thing is an incredible piece of craftsmanship and work of cinematic expression designed to wow the eyeballs of movie nerds gazing upon its glory.
Unfortunately, ‘Wonderstuck’ is a little inert beneath its glorious façade. That’s a reoccurring problem in Haynes’ career and this one particularly suffers from his love of style over substance. Whether this is actually supposed to be an adult movie for children or a children’s movie for adults, the audience that shows up will feel underwhelmed. Working from a fairly brief story (despite the double narrative), Haynes stretches things out and plays his movie painfully slowly. Despite all the surface beauty, very little happens within the immaculately crafted frames.
The problem isn’t as simple as the pacing being too slow. The emotional weight of the material doesn’t quite earn the patience or lavish style slathered upon it. Nothing here is as profound as the film presents and the actors are often wasted as mere focal points for pretty pictures. Something about ‘Wonderstruck’ feels hollow and empty, which is odd given that Haynes is clearly striving to create something more accessible and direct than his usual work. Somehow, it feels less satisfying than his more overtly niche and esoteric endeavors.
Still, it’s not as if ‘Wonderstuck’ is a totally disposable work by a fairly important filmmaker. This is one of the most visually beautiful films of the year, and despite how overlong and poorly paced it feels, the material has some poignancy and poetry. This is a minor Todd Haynes movie, but still an intriguing and strong one by the standards of most movies. It’s just a shame that Haynes neither went for a purely artistic stab at filmmaking about childhood or a more appealing film for children produced in a maturely stylized manner. Instead, the director stayed somewhere awkwardly in the middle ground between the two and delivered a final product guaranteed to alienate his typical art house crowd and the more mainstream audience he’s geared the work toward.
In a rough week for new releases, ‘Wonderstruck’ remains a highlight despite its flaws. Enough here works to suggest a better film that could have been. Sadly, we’ll never see it, but at least this version of ‘Wonderstruck’ is fine, with special moments sprinkled throughout.