Todd Haynes’ films, intellectually rigorous but often profoundly moving, thrive in the gaps, in the infinitesimal rifts that seem to separate people from the world around them. Empowered by a cinema in which aesthetics assume religious force, culture exists on a continuum, and art has a memory, his films tell fractured stories in which alienated characters try to find love (or a certain likeness) in the delicate folds of real life. As social philosopher Norman O. Brown once said — and as Haynes quoted directly in “Velvet Goldmine” — “Meaning is not in things, but in between them.”
In other words, don’t be fooled that his latest feature is a hyper-faithful adaptation of a half-illustrated children’s novel by “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” author Brian Selznick — “Wonderstruck” is nothing if not a Todd Haynes movie. And it’s an exquisite one, at that. Fresh off the greatest triumph of his career (that would be “Carol”), Haynes is still operating near the peak of his powers, returning to Cannes with an immaculately crafted fable about the ways in which people of all ages learn to break out of their bodies and connect with the world.
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Adapted by Selznick and tethered to the birth of museums much as “Hugo” was to the birth of film, this mesmerizing and open-hearted drama charts the parallel journeys of two deaf pre-teens — one in 1927, the other in 1977 — as they follow the treasure maps of their personal histories in search of a place where they might belong, a gap that they were born to close. There’s an Oscar Wilde quote that “Wonderstruck” returns to a half-dozen times: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” These characters are desperately trying to arrange them into constellations.
Our story begins on the banks of Gunflint Lake, Michigan, where a young boy named Ben (“Pete’s Dragon” star Oakes Fegley, a bit trapped by his shellshocked character) dreams of wolves snapping at his heels. He’s not an unusual kid, but he has a striking penchant for loss: When he was born, he lost his father. When we meet him, he’s about to lose his mother (Michelle Williams, making a significant impression as a quietly remote single mom with a penchant for spinning “Space Odyssey”). And when he sneaks into her room one night, snooping through the various objects she left behind, he loses his hearing.
It’s a freak accident, and it only happens because Ben actually finds something — a love note written across the top of an old bookmark — and a lightning bolt streaks through the house at the precise moment he picks up the phone to dial the number of the New York City shop whose address is printed on the bottom. Newly deaf and determined, Ben makes a break for Manhattan as soon as he wakes up in the hospital.
He will not be the first to make such a pilgrimage. Ben’s journey is cross-cut with that of a girl named Rose (magnificently expressive newcomer Millicent Simmonds), who lives in the monochrome kingdom of pre-Depression New Jersey. Hearing impaired since birth and cooped up in the Hoboken household where her overprotective father keeps her caged, Ruth spends her time building paper models of the skyscrapers she sees through the fog across the Hudson River; occasionally, she sneaks out to the local movie palace, where her private world — shot in vivid black and white — is reflected in the film language of her time. Seldom has Haynes ever found such a perfect vehicle to express the physicality of queerness, or the extent to which people can feel defined by their differences.
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