Todd Haynes doesn’t get enough respect and I’ve never understood why. He should be up there with the Coens as a household name among indie giants. Every entry in his spotless filmography (move along, Safe haters) builds upon and deepens the themes he’s been sowing into his own private cinematic universe ever since he first rolled film on his Barbie collection. He’s goofy, profound, sexy, arrogant, generous, true of heart and has a pronounced allergy to anything set in the present day. He’s stolen from all his heroes and done them one better every time out, never settling and refusing to compromise on his almost supernatural ability to create entire worlds that feel at once completely fantastic and painfully human. Wonderstruck, the most deceptively simple and straightforward tale he’s yet presented, is the culmination of all that effort.
As I said, he’s got a perfect track record. Even Carol, which I’ve only seen once and wasn’t crazy about as I watched it, left me with the distinct impression that I was missing something, that Haynes was right and I was wrong. I trust him completely. And Wonderstruck helped me hit upon the reason why.
You’re always looking for the big reveal, trying to find the key to the thing so you can unlock it and have it make sense for you. But there’s no mystery. Life isn’t like that. We can romanticize all the ways we’re interconnected, but the truth is that our search for meaning is our own. If we happen to stumble over someone else’s meaning while we’re at it, then great. We can help each other. But just as often we’re missing all the answers while looking for the clues. So in presenting two separate stories set 50 years apart and daring us to figure out how they’re linked (outside of one significant detail that will be obvious from the start), the film shows us two sides of the same world before finally, gracefully pulling back so we can see the whole picture.
We meet 11-year-old Rose in 1927 as she goes to see her favorite film star, Lillian Mayhew, in Daughters of the Storm. In 1977, we see Ben, at the same age as Rose, listening to “Space Oddity.” They’re kids of their times, and, appropriately, their respective segments are presented each in their own cinematic styles. Rose lives in a buttoned-up silent film while Ben tears across 1970s New York through the lens of Scorsese or Lumet. We are dropped completely into their orbits with the sweetness of a great children’s film and all the tension of a thriller.
Their parallel runaway adventures — Rose to meet Mayhew as she’s set to make her Broadway debut; Ben to find the bookstore that holds clues to what happened to his father — are so enthralling that, by the end, you barely notice that nothing much actually “happens” over the course of the film. But Wonderstruck puts all the pleasures of watching movies on full display, along with all the heart it has to take to bring such a specific point of view to life.