Film Review: ‘Wonderstruck’ Striking But Not Among Haynes’ Finest


By Joe Fritts

We get a film from Todd Haynes once every 3.25 years, on average. His break between I’m Not There and Carol was eight years long, if you don’t count the HBO remake of Mildred Pierce. It was well worth the wait, too, since the result of that hiatus was the emotionally connected and visually stunning Carol. When Haynes’ oeuvre is taught in the New Queer Cinema class at whatever film school, Carol will be (as of now) known as his masterpiece. Wonderstruck will not.


Wonderstruck is based on a critically acclaimed novel, and the basic plot of the story is split in two, with Ben living in 1977 Minnesota, and Rose living in 1927 New Jersey. Ben and Rose are both deaf, for different reasons, and both run away from home to New York City. Their stories vaguely overlap, so the stories take on the film styles of the time, but they end up looking like different films that have been spliced together. Ben is deaf, and his side of the story gets the script and technicolor while Rose, who is also deaf, has only an orchestral score and is presented in black and white. The kids have their adventures within their stories, with the Museum of Natural History and a book called Cabinet of Curiosities: Wonderstruck playing a central role, then Julianne Moore tells us all about miniature dioramas.

Largely, the complaints around Wonderstruck have been in its pace. The movie feels long, even though it’s just under two hours. Other complaints have come for the style being so unlike previous Haynes’ films, forgetting that a director stepping out of his zone is refreshing. What makes Wonderstruck such a disappointment is the fact that you’re watching these similar stories, with no feeling of connection to the characters, and with no connection to the characters, the two stories feel even more disparate. At times, it was hard to remember which character you were watching, and it was even harder to tell if you cared.

This is not to say that the film is without merits. Julianne Moore is a welcome grown-up, and Millicent Simmonds is great in her non-verbal role; when everything comes together, the cinematography is stunning. Haynes is no stranger to miniature dioramas, his first film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, was almost entirely told using Barbie dolls, but by the time the dioramas show up in Wonderstruck, it seems too late, as this is the only part of the film that makes you feel connected. It is tragic and joyful and we feel something for a moment, and suddenly, you don’t care again.  


Todd Haynes gifts us a movie every 3.25 years, but this one came only one year and eleven months after Carol. As much as I’m excited to hear about his next project, I won’t be upset if Haynes releases it in early 2021.

Flagrantly Rated: *** (3 out of 5 Stars)

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