Great directors can be crafty at masking inadequate screenplays. Their style and skill are often so absorbing that one doesn’t see the faults in the writing. It’s unfortunate, then, that Todd Haynes’s latest film Wonderstruck – adapted from a novel by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the script – suffers the same fate.
The movie follows two parallel narratives which run side by side in different timelines. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 12-year-old living in 1977 Minnesota. His mother (Michelle Williams) dies suddenly and, during a thunderstorm, the boy loses his hearing – after which he runs away to New York in the hope of finding his father. Concurrently, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) – a deaf girl from 20s New Jersey – runs away from her father (James Urbaniak) in search of her mother (Julianne Moore), a famous silent film actress.
There’s so much to admire in the first half of this feature. The drifts between the two stories flow beautifully together like water and sand, perfectly accommodating the characters’ mutual lack of hearing. The scenes with Simmonds are the most wonder-striking, not only because of the director’s choice to make Rose’s story into a silent movie, but because the teenager is an astounding actress in her own right – and she’s intensely watchable. Carter Burwell’s score is hypnotic and magical, shifting from silent cinema clangs to 70s guitar rhythms. The editing and cinematography by Edward Lachman and Affonso Gonçalves unfold in the same dreamy way.
But Selznick doesn’t stand up as a screenwriter. The dialogue isn’t much more than functional, though it occasionally has its moments. The story delves into an irrelevant subplot where Ben encounters Jamie (Jaden Michael), the son of a museum worker. We are led along this road for an inordinate amount of time and it doesn’t contribute much to the overall narrative.
But these writerly flaws are breezes in the wind compared to the deluge of exposition flooding the final act. The American auteur attempts to make an exquisitely poignant sequence with puppets, but doesn’t shake off the bad and lengthy speeches that explain every nook and cranny of the backstory. It’s a tedious anti-climax, particularly when considering the picturesque mysteries that came before it.
Although it’s clear that Haynes spreads his heart across this project, it’s not in the right place. It wasn’t wise for the author to write the screenplay, and Wonderstruck doesn’t predict a fruitful cinematic career for Selznick.
Wonderstruck is released nationwide on 6th April 2018.
Watch the trailer for Wonderstruck here: