Yes, this is minor Haynes, and no, this is not his first “bad” film. Todd Haynes couldn’t direct a bad film if he tried. He’s much too poetic and graceful. The reason Wonderstruck isn’t as good as some of his other work is really down to Brian Selznick’s story. It’s not as dynamic or inventive as the one in Hugo, utilizing a parallel structure to unite two characters whose relationship is not hard to guess at. Take it away and there is nothing much there except your usual tale of an orphaned boy trying to locate the parent he never knew. The interlocking narrative that’s set fifty years in the past helps to tease out the thematic undercurrents of fate and coincidence that orbit the story like a benevolent moon, ever present but constantly shaded in mystery. Once the sunny rays of revelation are thrown onto events, the result is predictably sentimental (though not too sentimental, since Hayes knows how to keep things even-keeled).
More interesting than the story is the film’s exploration of time capsules vs. industrialization, the primary setting of the Museum of Natural History and its ossified contents being thrown into relief against the changing landscapes and skyline of New York City. I found it lovely to see the backdrops morph from the 1920s to the 1970s (and vice versa) as the storylines flickered to and fro. I also thought the way Haynes foregrounded how deaf children visualize and experience their immediate surroundings was wonderfully astute. The Rose story is especially well-done in this respect, and it helps that it’s anchored by the beguiling Millicent Simmonds, who makes a splendid impression in her debut feature. It’s too bad she has to share the film so much with Oakes Fegley. Not that the latter is bad—he just doesn’t captivate in the same way Simmonds does.
When Julianne Moore returns to the story in the end and underplays her final moments with such effortless finesse, I found that I couldn’t fault Wonderstruck in any major way. If Selznick’s story isn’t remarkable, Haynes and the cast (not to mention cinematographer Ed Lachman, composer Carter Burwell and production designer Mark Friedberg) breathe enough soul into it as compensation. And hey, this is a children’s film first and foremost. Working on foreign ground, Haynes has the talent and sensibility to make it sing.