Unfortunately for Rose, however, her time is changing. It’s 1927, and the sound era is about to arrive like a crack of thunder. (Rose’s favorite movie theater makes the transition while she’s inside it.) Suddenly, it seems as though Rose will fall into the cracks if she can’t find a place where she belongs. And so, with an urgent spark of energy, she hops a ferry to the big city in search of her favorite silent picture star (Julianne Moore).
As in Selznick’s novel, which Haynes adheres to so closely that the book’s illustrations could have served as storyboards, “Wonderstruck” fluidly cuts between Ben and Rose’s respective quests, careful to note the rhymes between the two narratives without making the connection so direct that the story doubles itself into redundancy. On the contrary, the plots flow into one another like the verse and chorus of a classic pop song; Ben offers the story its bones, Rose its hooks. Her segments are sparser, richer, and far more memorable — they’re daring and aggressively stylized to a degree that Haynes doesn’t match for his male hero’s more plot-driven portions — but they wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the context that his journey provides them.
There’s a good chance this would have been a more balanced and visceral experience had Haynes followed Selznick’s lead and directly conveyed the boy’s hearing loss, especially because allowing viewers to hear what people say to the character ends up having significant consequences for how we arrive at the third act. But “Wonderstruck” isn’t a film about either one of its threads so much as it’s a film about how they intertwine, and where.
To that point, yes, this is a New York Movie. It’s bound to very specific moments in the city’s past, and Ed Lachman’s sweltering, staggeringly evocative cinematography brings them all back to the present. This degree of verisimilitude hasn’t been seen since the ’70s themselves (several of the street scenes could be seamlessly edited into “The French Connection”), and the clarity helps restore a sense of awe to Manhattan, to the confluence of chance encounters and shared discoveries that give the city its history.
Likewise, Carter Burwell’s score does the same for the city’s people, and the objects by which they’re remembered. The mammoth amount of music he’s written for this movie includes some of his best and most ambitious work to date, from the propulsive wind and piano pieces that flesh out the silent-era melodies to the psych drone that welcomes us back to New York, every note hints that the film is building toward an incredible sense of cohesion.
That last crescendo does arrive, and with seismic force, the film climaxing with a 10-minute expository monologue in which Haynes reaches all the way back to “Superstar” in order to find the perfect visual language. His choice, and the revelations that result, are best experienced for the first time at their proper moment, but his idiosyncratic solution underlines the raw memory of objects in a film that attributes so much to how we choose to curate them. The film’s tidy coda may be more emotionally transparent than most of Haynes’ works, but the beautiful sequence is no less wrenching for that. This is a soul-stirring and fiercely uncynical film that suggests the entire world is a living museum for the people we’ve lost, and that we should all hope to leave some of ourselves behind in its infinite cabinet of wonders.
“Wonderstruck” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions will release it in theaters on October 20th.