There is a strange sense in modern cinema that to be avant-garde means to be vague, whereas pop entertainment wears its idealisms or opinions on its sleeve. A look at this year’s offerings offers a startling set of comparisons to make this point. Early in the year the surprise box office hit Get Out offered a vicious B-movie critique of race relations in contemporary America, while the arthouse darling It Comes at Night was a somewhat sluggish bore about people in the woods, trapped in some vague post-apocalyptic future without much of a point (or coherent plot). Even Ridley Scott’s latest rehash of the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant, had more to say about the rise of Fascism in the modern world than anything else released in the season.
Now comes Todd Haynes, a most un-vague filmmaker, trying to play the post-modern game with Wonderstruck, a somewhat joyless attempt at telling a children’s story. It is a visually elegant experiment, daring in its understanding of sound and music, but what exactly Haynes wants to say dissolves within the first frames. I watched the film at The Theatre at The Ace hotel in downtown Los Angeles. After a rather tedious experience involving a clunky admittance policy (if you arrived with your printed ticket you needed to then walk six blocks down the LA Theatre to get the actual physical pass), I settled down with much anticipation. A nice bonus was that the film’s composer, Carter Burwell, conducted the score live during the screening. But it soon dawned on me that while the images illuminating the screen were well composed, the story simply wasn’t there.
Adapted by Brian Selznick from his own novel, the film tells the parallel stories of Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben (Oakes Fegley). Rose lives in New Jersey in 1927, Ben lives in Minnesota in 1977. Rose is deaf and deals an authoritarian father who shouts and shoves sign language books at her. She is secretly intrigued by the famous actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Off she goes to New York to seek out Mayhew and leave her ranting father behind. Meanwhile in 1977, Ben grapples with wanting to know who his father is while dealing with the sudden, tragic death of his mother (Michelle Williams). One night while looking over a book on museums, Ben unwisely starts dialing a phone during a thunderstorm. A lightning bolt strikes and Ben is electrocuted and left permanently deaf. After what seems like a day at the hospital, he too runs away to New York, in his case to seek his father. Soon he and Rose- in their parallel eras- find themselves enraptured by the city’s Natural History Museum, where they make important new acquaintances and make life-changing discoveries.
Haynes has been a key American director going back to the 1990s, when following his searing debuts Poison and Safe, which dealt with subjects such as AIDS and germophobia, he produced works of visual power combined with keen social commentary. His 1997 Velvet Goldmine explored the 1970s glam-rock era and its prophetic approach to gender and sexuality. In 2002 he directed what might still be his masterpiece, Far from Heaven. Filmed in a technicolor style, the film was an homage to the work of directors like Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who used melodrama to tell subversive stories that challenged social taboos. In the film Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid play a postcard-perfect couple in 1950s America who speak as if reading from a prepared behavior guide. But he’s secretly gay and she’s starting to have feelings for the black gardener. His 2007 I’m Not There was a visually wild experiment using the idea of Bob Dylan to explore celebrity and creativity. Cate Blanchett was astounding in playing the 60s Dylan. Haynes returned to exploring gender relations and sexual freedom in post-war America in an HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce, and in his 2016 Carol again shot in the sensuous tones of classic Hollywood while exposing the boiling feelings hidden underneath.
With Wonderstruck the elegant anthropologist of human desire and identity becomes a silent producer of mere style. The film’s technique is surely bold. Haynes and his regular and brilliant cinematographer, Edward Lachman, shift between a black and white 1927- full of lush grain- and the vivid, lively colors of 1977 New York. At times the editing beautifully links the two eras- Rose’s hand in 1927 will graze a plaque in the Museum of Modern Art, and the film cuts to Ben’s hand completing the same motion over the same plaque in 1977. The distant past of 1927 is completely silent, fully emphasizing Rose’s deafness, but the world of 1977 is full of sound which is alien to Ben but audible to us. There are beautiful production design flourishes, such as using the New York panorama from the 1964 World’s Fair as a narrative device in the third act.
But what is missing is the voice of the director. Haynes can never seem to bring any real life to this story. The script (or direction) lacks the warmth, nostalgia, or emotional tension of the best films attempting to enter a child’s world. Even the angle of their deafness feels more like a convenient plot tool. It gives Haynes the excuse to shoot the B&W scenes without sound and it provides Ben his one, sole hurtle as he (quite comfortably) wanders around New York. Take away the deafness and both characters are simply lost children who quickly find recycled plot points to follow. They never face real uncertainty, danger or even doubts about their missions. Even the one time Ben is mugged in New York feels like a tired, worn device. Rose’s New York trip is so quick and painless you wonder why she did not run away sooner. Even a Latino kid named Jaime (Jaden Michael), who becomes Ben’s friend in the city, feels like a character tossed in for convenience. There isn’t much to him except to confess, “I have no friends.” There’s little complexity to the children and Simmonds and Fegley don’t come across actually as deaf, more like two quiet kids. They quickly and easily seem to just find everyone they’re supposed to without any suspense.
It must be said that it is Burwell’s graceful, at times evocative score that brings some emotional life to the proceedings. For even Julianne Moore is reduced to two, hollow roles, her Roman profile simply sits there, beautifully lit and waiting for the third act’s calculated, cute reveal. Everything wraps up in such a tidy fashion that the film feels like a hand reaching out and closing on air. As with most post-modern cinema, we are never sure about what it is Haynes wants to say. Enraptured by his own technique, he loses sight of the potentials within the narrative- or what we assume to be a narrative. The maestro is doing a pure exercise in style. So much so that some of it feels like unfinished sketches. Scenes which should allow comedy and tension to build rush by, and we feel as if Haynes is merely moving from one episode to another.
The writer, Selznick was also the writer of Hugo, which was Martin Scorsese’s attempt at a film from a child’s eye level. That film at least felt as if it understood some of the real heartbreak and colorful sense of the world that comes with pre-adolescence, Haynes is always the adult in Wonderstruck, never allowing the film to fly into full childish energy or joy. This is odd considering the somber tone seems out of place with a story that is never quite somber or dark.
What Haynes appears to be afflicted by here is the post-modernist trend of style for its own sake. Cinema has become so technically advanced and dominated by digital innovation that form supersedes content. But the condition isn’t only afflicting novices making their first attempts at a movie. Earlier this year Edgar Wright abandoned satire for pure, slick surface in Baby Driver, which was nothing more than action cut to stale songs, and even that typical rebel of logic, Christopher Nolan, abandoned any semblance of a story (or context) with Dunkirk, which was nothing but tension without narrative. At least David Lowery’s Ghost made up for its lack of convincing narrative with a true sense of poetry and rapture. None of these films were as unbearable as Eric D. Howell’s Voice from the Stone, a haunted house story that has no idea what it’s about, and earned me a tender smack on the cheek from my worthy friend on who’s shoulder I fell asleep.
What these films have in common is a curious hesitancy to express a clear idea or statement. Cinema need not be preachy, but even the cryptic surrealism of David Lynch pulsates with the urgency of a director attempting to convey an experience. Even Terrence Malick’s recent work, as fractured as it may seem, bursts with purpose. But other notable directors are falling for the charm of playing with the cameras, and not really using them. In Wonderstruck Haynes proves again that he is a director with a look and tone that is singular, but he has now decided to experiment with a post-modern gaze. It is a pity, because his cinema is always so human and insightful, and one can imagine how he would convey a child’s world if done with the reckless passion if his greatest work. Like much of what’s being offered these days by some of Haynes’s other peers, the eye of a master is present, but the heart is missing.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.