Todd Haynes's attention to period detail is never less than impeccable – in fact, the director has never made a feature set in current times. (Even his 1995 breakout Safe was set in the late '80s.) Clearly, reproducing the past is, for Haynes, a big part of the joy of filmmaking. Sometimes it meshes well, thematically and visually, with a stong story, as with Far from Heaven; sometimes it overwhelms a muddled story and bloats the film, as with Velvet Goldmine. With Wonderstruck it's a lovely match, even if art house audiences may ultimately find this a minor work.
That last line is a bit of a pun, as Wonderstruck is, in the best sense of the word, a kiddie movie. Written by Brian Selznick, based on his "juvenile fiction novel" (i.e. children's book), the story concerns two deaf children adrift in New York City: one in 1927, one in 1977, their scenes intercutting until a connection is inevitably made.
Appropriately, Haynes shoots the 1927 segments like a silent film, in black and white and with muted dialogue (but no title cards). The 1977 segments expertly recreate the crime-ridden cesspool of 1970s Manhattan. At my screening – and I assume this will be the case with all screenings – the dialogue, sound effects, and even music cues in the 1977 segments are close-captioned. It's an interesting addition, one that was announced at my screening as coming from the "overwhelming demand by the deaf community" but which I have to assume Haynes approved, and possibly even conceived. (Carter Burwell's lush score, one of his best, is a gift to the non-hearing-impaired.)
Brian Selznick also wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which Martin Scorsese adapted into Hugo. I was unaware of the stories' shared author when I saw Wonderstruck, but I nevertheless sensed strong similarities between the two films, both of which are very much about the magic of science bringing lonely, intelligent children together. It is safe to say that if you enjoyed Hugo, you will likewise enjoy Wonderstruck. I did, and so I did.
I can't end this review without acknowledging Millicent Simmonds, who plays the lead character in the 1927 segments. Deaf in real life, the young actress is effortlessly sympathetic – and frankly adorable. I wish Haynes had shot more scenes with her, as Oakes Fegley, as her 1977 counterpart, is no match for her charm, though he is good enough.