Wonderstruck (2017)

117 min. Director: Todd Haynes. Cast: Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams, Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore.

Like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck takes off from a young-adult period-piece novel by Brian Selznick. Selznick tells stories through a hybrid of words and pictures friendly to cinematic adaptation, while also presenting challenges best met by an adventurous filmmaker. Since Haynes has made his name among cineastes as a purveyor of edgy adult dramas, he might not seem best suited to this doubled-feature telling the story of a girl’s journey in 1927 and a boy’s journey in 1977. There’s some truth in that, but on balance, Wonderstruck should capture the imaginations of precocious kids up for something a little deeper than usual.

Wonderstruck is one of those stories that presents a narrative mystery: two plot threads in two disparate timelines with a connection we know will supply an emotional climax when the last piece fits into place. The 1927 story follows young Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds) as she runs away from home to Manhattan for a hopeful encounter with Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a silent-film star who has returned to the Broadway stage in the waning days of silent movies. In 1977, young Ben (Oakes Fegley) absconds to Manhattan from his Minnesota home, leaving behind his mother (Michelle Williams) in the hopes of tracking down his father. These kids on the cusp (around age 12, 13) both make their journeys without the benefit of hearing: Rose has been deaf all her life (like Simmonds, who lost her hearing at 12 months), while Ben becomes deaf as the result of a freak accident involving lightning.

That lightning strike, as suggested by the title, serves as a metaphor for the shock of discovery, the realizations a child has about the ever-expanding complications of life that come year by year. Those realizations can be traumatizing or joyous, and with time, we get used to being struck without the wonder of childhood perception. What suits Haynes (Carol, SafeFar from Heaven) to the story is his own love of arts and crafts, first on display in his notorious short film “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” which starred modified Barbie dolls. Wonderstruck keeps brushing against arts and crafts: not only acting, but also the delicate curation of museum exhibits, tableaux, and scale models (entrancingly, much of the film takes place in New York’s Museum of Natural History).

Haynes has less success in striking us with wonder in the black-and-white 1927 passages, which lack the chiaroscuro punch of the best black-and-white films. The literal and figurative color—and the cheeky use of Deodato’s jazz-funk cover of Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra”—keep the 1977 passages more wondrous, along with the sweet-natured relationship that develops between new friends Ben and Jamie (an open-hearted Jaden Michael).

Over an hour of Wonderstruck plays out as a silent film, teased along by Carter Burwell’s typically supple score: as such, it’s no stretch to call this one of the best films made about a deaf worldview. The film’s longueurs may try some audience’s patience, especially given the modest payoff, but Wonderstruck offers a breath of fresh air in a world of special-effects extravaganzas and short-attention-span CGI-animated roller coasters.