MIFF 2017: Wonderstruck

Todd Hayne’s latest film, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2011 young adult novel Wonderstruck, is a film of great frustration. In many respects, its story feels drawn from the mind of Charlie Kaufman – a marriage of joyfully dreamlike innocence and abstracted, homemade fantasy – but without all the self-awareness, too concerned with delivering emotion through an overindulgent score (which often feels at odds with what’s on screen) than splitting the film with concise musical directions. Wonderstruck follows two stories in parallel, set 50 years apart and defined not only by journies to the American Museum of Natural History, but also their characters’ deafness. Ben’s (Oakes Fegley) story is set in the 70s and guided by the search for his father, while Rose (Millicent Simmonds) embarks on a misguided attempt to reconcile with her distant mother in the film’s 20s component. Selznick’s book’s concept is simple: one story is told through words (Ben’s), the other in pictures (Rose’s). This creatively simple textual distinction presents itself a great concept for the page; Hayne’s effort to replicate this on screen, however, falters in a great dropping the of the balls that he tries so hard to juggle.

To transpose the story to the cinema, a bold distinction between the two halves is necessary – just as in Selznick’s book – and where Haynes has some creative advantage over pictures and words is in the sound design, the perfect cinematic tool to construct and portray the idea of deafness. Given the incredible sonic subtlety and precision in his previous works – the manifestation of Safe’s anxiety is exemplified by an increasingly eerie buzzing sound, like an itch you just can’t scratch – this material seems to be in perfect hands, but to great dismay it goes wasted. Haphazardly structured sonic switches work simply to convolute – what’s most frustrating (beyond Michelle Williams being robbed of more screen time) is the scoring, the bustling streets of Manhattan that zone in and out at will, the speaking roles that serve to portray the struggles of day-to-day deafness, but are so poorly handled that they rupture any idea of cohesion.

Where Rose’s story is clearly defined by odes to silent cinema – jolting piano keys over black and white photography – Ben’s tale, on the other hand, is as scattershot as they come: sound whirs in and out, moments shifting from silence in conveying Ben’s deafness in a fashionable manner, to full diegetic, to half diegetic, to funky 70s music and back to 20s piano, in a way that’s frustratingly messy to a work that would operate better within a simplistic dual approach. Moment to moment, it jumps around in an unassuring manner, never finding a mode to commit to. In a film populated with small moments of childhood innocence, Carter Burwell’s score booms with the sentimentality of a Spielberg picture, exchanging the poetic strings of Carol for something a whole lot louder and ultimately detrimental (the funky sound of Deodato’s remake of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra" is the only thing getting a download from me). All these audio hitches unnecessarily complicate Ben’s story, never allowing it to find a single register to work in – but even then, its convoluted approach makes for the more interesting half of the film. The 20s story feels a whole lot less important than its partner, less a parallel set of stories in motion than vague haze of background noise to a more engaging but ultimately contrived counterpart, one that feels compelled to overturn narrative beats for the convenience of the other.

Haynes’ acute formalism is virtually invisible here (hopefully only temporarily lost at the back of some sprawling museum), disjointed and bumpy cinematography aiding a concept that undoes his typically nuanced control of intimacy. It’s hard to tell that this even is a Haynes film, with the opening half-hour operating in full-fledged epilogue mode with that sprawling Burwell score manipulative in upgrading every small moment that should be cherished into some incredible revelation. It’s a shame that the story requires the dual timelines, because despite its multitude of irritating shortcomings, the 70s portion is so visually interesting in a way that the 20s isn’t. Haynes attempt to recapture cinema’s golden age goes in vain, and despite a commendable attempt to translate this storyline into something filmable, its result is a failed exercise in silent cinema resurrection.

What’s most frustrating of all is that during the final half hour I (alongside the weeping crowd) was affected by some overwhelming sadness, worthless puppets with (heart)strings being yanked by Julianne Moore’s soft, old eyes in a story that doesn’t deserve this kind of reaction, that rushes along to its conclusion with barely any time to develop its central pathos. Fegley’s acting is weak in conveying any sense of desperation in finding his father beyond a rushed, bratty anger towards both his mother, and new friend Jamie (Jaden Michaels) for "concealing" potential information about his father’s whereabouts which is oh so painfully contrived, a forced narrative step to fulfil a "necessary" conflict between the two (hey kid – chill out a second). The ultimate revelation that Ben is connected to Rose in other ways as they sit above a scale replica of New York, and that his long-lost father fits in somewhere between them in the puzzle feels ill resolved; that the scale replica of New York they sit above is filled with mementos of Ben’s father is so… worthless. Haynes compiles all this information and does barely anything with it –better off working in minimalism – and, off the best film of his career, crafts an uninspired, hokey tale that has nothing to get so excited about. You’ll have a better time starwatching on your own.

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