All wonder has been lost from Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck by the movie’s end

The film, which tells the tale of two adventurers separated by half a century, falls to pieces in its second half.

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When Todd Haynes made Velvet Goldmine, a glam-rock take on Citizen Kane named after a David Bowie B-side, he was forbidden by the singer from using any of his music. (Bowie claimed to be saving it for his own project, which eventually became the ropey stage musical Lazarus.) Twenty years later, Haynes’s new film, Wonderstruck, is bookended by two recordings of “Space Oddity” – Bowie’s original and a charged choral version by the Langley Schools Music Project. The song suits the mood of a film, adapted by Brian Selznick from his own young adult novel, in which stargazing of different kinds plays a part.

Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 12-year-old orphan and astronomy enthusiast in 1977. His mother (Michelle Williams) died before revealing who his late father was. Had she told him, there would be no movie. Convinced that the answer lies in New York City, Ben sets off despite having recently lost his hearing in an accident. When asked if being deaf is scary, he replies: “Mostly it’s just quiet.” For a kid who just passed his first 24 hours of deafness by travelling alone overnight from Minnesota, that’s either impressively brave or emotionally implausible.

Also making the journey to the same city is Rose (Millicent Simmonds), another 12-year-old runaway, who was born deaf and is obsessed with a different sort of star. Growing up in New Jersey in 1927, she pores over magazine portraits of her favourite movie idol, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), and treks to Manhattan to find her. Judging by the neatly layered hairdo which Rose gives herself simply by snipping at her barnet with a pair of household scissors, I fully expected her to find her fortune as a big-city hairdresser. A meeting with Lillian reveals that a different future is in the stars.

Haynes, who proved with Poison that he is no slouch when it comes to splicing together apparently unconnected stories, cuts back and forth between these two adventurers separated by half a century. The cinematographer Ed Lachman favours sun-frazzled, overheated colours for Ben’s story but it is in Rose’s sections that the film takes its most rewarding stylistic leap. Shot in plush black-and-white, with Carter Burwell’s intricate score doing all the talking, it is rendered as a miniature silent movie. Highly expressive performances by Fegley and Simmonds (who is herself deaf and can also be seen in the new horror film A Quiet Place) urge proceedings along even at their most uneventful.

It all falls to pieces in its second half, when Haynes overestimates the power of showing Ben walking in Rose’s footsteps or placing his hands where hers had been 50 years earlier. Even this visionary director can’t make shots of people looking at things (books, museum exhibits) feel compelling, or pass off coincidence as drama. The decision to end with an extended animated flashback tying up all the loose ends would be disastrous had the movie’s reserves of wonder not been depleted by then.

Before he was a filmmaker, Haynes was a prominent member of the New York-based Aids activism group ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) which used media-savvy direct action to try to affect changes in medicine, government policy and on Wall Street. 120 BPM is a fictionalised drama, set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, about members of ACT UP’s Parisian offshoot. The film restages debates, marches and meetings as well as demonstrations at which bags of fake blood were the weapon of choice. There are elements to admire – committed performances and noble intentions – but as cinema it’s a non-starter. Imagine a feature-length version of the collectivisation debate from Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom and you’ll have some idea of how inert the staging can be.

What energy there is comes from the stunts of the activists themselves, for which the director Robin Campillo can hardly take credit; in some cases he actively sabotages their momentum with fussy flashbacks. 120 BPM has picked up superlatives (“thrilling”, “urgent”) on its year-long tour of the festival circuit, which feels like a case of critics reviewing the politics, not the picture. 

Wonderstruck (PG) dir: Todd Haynes
120BPM (15) dir: Robin Campillo

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire