“Please do not touch the exhibits,” say the signs in most museums. In competition at Cannes, Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck is a touchy-feely cabinet of wonders which occasionally enraptures but also drags, never quite achieving the promise of its title.
It’s 1977 and Ben (Oakley Fegley), a young child who has recently lost his mother, lives in Gunflint, Michigan with his relatives. He has nightmares of being chased by wolves and is haunted by memories of his mother (Michelle Williams) and a longing to discover the identity of his unknown father. Meanwhile, in 1927, young deaf girl Rose (Millicent Simmonds) rebels against her authoritarian father and seeks refuge in a cinema enjoying the silent melodramas like Daughters of the Storm, starring a glamorous diva (Julianne Moore). When she decides to run away, she heads for New York to seek out the actress, even as the movie houses close to renovate for the arrival of the Talkies. This strand is related in black and white – because that’s how the past was – and without dialogue because the protagonist is deaf.
Although moments are silent in terms of dialogue, with an overbearing score Tom-and-Jerrying the action and a notable lack of silent movie grammar, the decision ends up feeling gimmicky. Back in 1977, Ben is also running away to New York, having been struck deaf by a freak accident involving a telephone, his yearning for his father and some plot-convenient lightning. His New York is Taxi Driver-esque and with his pudding bowl haircut there’s more than a passing resemblance to Jodie Foster. It’s is also funkalicious and here Haynes’ double-whammy of nostalgia threatens to blow the story off course as the Carol director gets as psyched by fabrics and old songs as he does about his plot. An elderly character is introduced walking down the street to the blaring of Eumur Deodato’s funked-up version of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Adapted by Brian Selznick from his own novel, the story follows The Invention of Hugo Cabret in using adultlike kids as vehicles to rediscover something ‘childlike’ via a convoluted treasure hunt. Quotations are typed out and stuck to walls by mom in Act One so that the kid can realise the significance of them in Act Three. And yet, especially in a prolonged, almost dialogue-free middle section, Wonderstruck takes on a hypnotic and bold direction which points to a better approach.
Sadly, Haynes loses his nerve and this captivating section is followed by some crushing expository scenes as we’re explained everything via speech, sign language and quickly-scribbled notes. It doesn’t help that the ‘inciting incident’ – the identity of Ben’s father – could have been solved with one swift phone call years earlier. The fraudulent nature of the mystery makes Wonderstruck feel like a technical exercise: albeit one which is enlivened by some great visuals and excellent performances, particularly the wonderful Millicent Simmonds.