Film Review: Todd Haynes Aims for Younger Audiences in Magical Wonderstruck

Director Todd Haynes simply refuses to stop impressing me. After creating the chilly love story of Carol two years ago, he follows that up with the PG-rated, puzzle-box fable Wonderstruck, based on the novel by Brian Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay, in addition to writing the book that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was based upon). The story follows two children, both clinically deaf and living in two different decades, but somehow still drawn toward each other in weirdly parallel lives.

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions

In 1927, we are introduced to 12-year-old Rose (Millicent Simmonds), living in a mansion with her impatient father (James Urbaniak) and feeling very much alone as her older brother (Cory Michael Smith) has long since left the family home in Hoboken, New Jersey. She finds comfort and company in the movies, in particular watching a silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), whom she finds out is rehearsing a play in New York City. So she runs away from home, hops a bus and heads for the big city. Haynes aptly chooses to allow us to hear large portions of Rose’s story the way she hears the world—largely muffled and a bit terrifying. The filmmaker also shoots this portion of the film in gorgeous black and white, and before long, we discover why Rose is drawn to this particular actress.

The movie transitions between this “silent” film and another tale, set 50 years later, centering on young Ben (Oakes Fegley). He lives in Gunflint, Minnesota, with his single mother (Michelle Williams) who refuses to talk about his father, whom Ben has never met. We soon discover that, in fact, Ben is living with his aunt after his mother has died in a car crash. Determined to find his father, Ben digs through his mother’s things and finds a bookmark from a New York bookstore with a handwritten love note on the back from someone named Danny. Due to a recent freak accident while using the phone in an electrical storm, Ben has also lost his hearing, although unlike Rose, the result is he’s a loud talker.

Haynes brilliants juxtaposes the idealized New York City with the slightly less glitzy version in 1977, when Ben gets off the bus and begins to seek out the bookstore. On his search, he meets Jamie (Jaden Michael), another kid, whose father works in the American Museum of Natural History. There, the boys create a secret, safe space for Ben to rest, eat and figure out his next move. And it’s in this museum where the two stories begin to converge.

I don’t want to say any more about where this folk tale ends up. Moore does pop up again in Ben’s story, playing a different character (in a strange coincidence, she also plays two characters in this week’s Suburbicon), alongside a truly sweet performance by Tom Noonan, an actor I love and don’t see nearly enough in a given year.

I can absolutely see inquisitive, bright children finding a lot of love about Wonderstruck. With just a hint of danger and adventure, some truly crisp and beautiful cinematography by Edward Lachman, and a lush score from Carter Burwell (who also scored Carol), the film is paced perfectly and provides lovely period tours of two eras in New York’s history, which seems like a true bonus. The child actors are especially talented, and Moore continues to amaze (if you discount her wrong-note work in the Kingsman sequel last month).

The film is like watching a puzzle being carefully, expertly pieced together. It’s not Haynes’ best work, but it’s a rare opportunity to introduce him to a younger audience who probably won’t get to see another one of his films until they’re in their mid-20s.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.