'Wonderstruck' spins an engrossing, visually captivating tale for movie fans of all ages

Kenneth Turan
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

With its intricate structure and 600-plus page length, Brian Selznick's "Wonderstruck" is not the easiest Young Adult novel to bring to the screen, and filmmaker Todd Haynes is not the likeliest director to take on any YA book, easy or not.

Yet working beautifully together with a major assist from the visual team of cinematographer Ed Lachman and production designer Mark Friedberg, they have created a bit of magic with their production.

Selznick, who also adapted the screenplay, previously had the experience of seeing a novel of his turned into Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," while Haynes, whose work includes such unclassifiable movies as "I'm Not There," "Safe" and "Velvet Goldmine," was in uncharted territory with this one.

"My films are not always the most conventional," the director acknowledged when "Wonderstruck" debuted at Cannes. "The thing that excited me is that I'd never done a movie about kids, a film kids could see."

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Haynes was also energized by the possibilities that the unusual structure of Selznick's story offered. It's not every book that tells parallel tales half a century apart involving a pair of fearless and curious 12-year-olds, 1977's Ben and 1927's Rose, babes — not in Toyland — who run away from safe homes to unsettling Manhattan to chase personal dreams.

Millicent Simmons stars in "Wonderstruck," opening at Small Star Art House Nov. 24.

More than that, while Selznick tells Ben's story in prose, Rose's comes to us in exquisite black-and-white illustrations, pictures that are wordless because Rose is deaf and does not speak. (In an additional wrinkle, Ben becomes deaf after an accident early in the story.)

Working from Selznick's script and complementing Friedberg's exceptional re-creation of two periods, Lachman, a Haynes veteran, has employed two visual approaches here.
Ben's story is shot in gritty urban color reminiscent of "Midnight Cowboy" and "The French Connection," while Rose's tale is a silent movie shot in luminous black and white, such a rare occurrence that the 35 mm film stock had to be special-ordered from Kodak.

Like any good tale of marvels, "Wonderstruck" has elaborately worked out parallels, both visual and narrative, between its stories — intricate, artful coincidences that we can believe in.

And it has a through-line of emotion that connects them with each other and the audience.

Met first is Ben, living in Gunflint, Minnesota, and with his young life in tatters, someone not surprisingly subject to nightmares of being pursued by wolves.

Ben's mother, Elaine, has just died in a car crash (Michelle Williams plays her in flashback), and the boy, who has never been told who his absent father is, is living unhappily with his aunt and her kids.

Sneaking into his old house, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is the victim of a bizarre accident that takes away his hearing in an instant.

He also comes across a book called "Wonderstruck" about cabinets of wonder as the ancestors of modern museums. A bookmark with a note on it from Kincaid Books in Manhattan feels like a clue to his father's identity, so as soon as he can, Ben sneaks away and boards a bus for New York.

Fifty years earlier, just across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey, young Rose (Millicent Simmonds) also has her eye on Manhattan.

Deaf from birth though a stranger to sign language (both she and Ben communicate with others using written notes), Rose is fixated on silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Haynes veteran Julianne Moore). Rose finds out that the actress will be appearing on the Broadway stage and intrepidly heads into the big city to find her.

In addition to narrative parallels that keep getting stronger, the alternating pair of stories in "Wonderstruck" are linked by visual cues as well.

When Rose puts a paper boat into the East River, for instance, the film cuts almost immediately to a shot of a wooden boat on the water in Gunflint.

Another parallel is that both youngsters end up spending considerable time in Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History, especially the institution's iconic animal habitat dioramas.

Though Moore and the other adult actors acquit themselves well, the task of carrying "Wonderstruck" falls to the children on screen.

That Fegley does well is no surprise to those who saw him in "Pete's Dragon," but Simmonds' work is another story.

An exceptionally self-possessed and gifted performer who is herself deaf, Simmonds had mainly done stage work before was discovered in a nationwide search. With an expressive face and a vibrant personality, she is alive on-screen in the most wonderful way.

Though it takes its time, "Wonderstruck" — like the best tales of wonder — resolves all its mysteries as the plot's disparate strands come together in a lovely way.

"I need you to be patient with this story," a key character says to young Ben, and it's good advice for those of us in the audience as well.