Let the Great World Spin
By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Todd Haynes, U.S., Amazon Studios
“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.” —J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
The opening moments of Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’s deeply moving and superbly crafted adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic novel, are haunted. Ben (Oakes Fegley), a 12-year-old midwesterner, rouses from his sleep after a nightmare in which he is chased by wolves. He flashes back to an exchange with his mother (Michelle Williams), already dead after a car accident that precedes the film’s opening. In his remembered exchange, Ben interrupts his mother late at night, as she drags on a cigarette, listening to “Space Oddity.” Ben demands to know about his absent father or, at the very least, for her to explain the unattributed Oscar Wilde quote she keeps posted on the wall of her bedroom (“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”) and so the scene is actually twice haunted: by Ben’s unknown dad and by his now-dead mother. The ghostly presence of David Bowie on the soundtrack underscores the pervasive sense of loss.
Wonderstruck quickly jumps from its opening scenes in 1977 Gunflint, Minnesota, to Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1927. Here, a young deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds, giving a wonderfully expressive performance in her movie debut) sits at the bank of the Hudson and writes the simplest of missives (“Help me”), folding her message into a paper boat, then floating it on the river. From there, she runs off to see a silent movie titled Daughter of the Storm, starring an actress named Lillian Mayhew, trumpeted on the marquee as “our brightest star” and played by Haynes regular Julianne Moore. Like others in the audience, Rose is moved to tears by the picture, but her response has more to do with loneliness and loss than we initially know. Poignantly, as she leaves the theater, she wanders through advertisements for the new sync sound technology that is about to change the movies forever and, perhaps, alienate this young girl from the art form she seems to love. Haynes stages young Rose’s story as a black-and-white silent film, a knowing nod to her hearing impairment and also to the transformational moment at which her story is set.
Ben and Rose are initially linked by loneliness. In time, we learn that they have more in common—deafness, the fact that both are effectively orphans (Ben, in a literal sense; Rose, more metaphorically), and a mysterious shared history hinging in some way on the American Museum of Natural History on New York City’s Upper West Side. As in his Caldecott winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznick spins a plot-heavy yarn in Wonderstruck that mixes real places and histories with wild flights of fancy. Haynes and editor Affonso Gonçalves, working from a script by Selznick, do a remarkable job navigating labyrinthine narrative twists. The dangers of momentum-killing exposition are present throughout, and yet Wonderstruck moves briskly. This achievement isn’t Haynes’s and Gonçalves’s alone. Cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, and composer Carter Burwell, each working at top form, contribute visual and aural elements that give Wonderstruck an unending sense of narrative invention.
Without spoiling the film’s reveals, it is fair to say that Rose and Ben have an actual connection that is, finally, less important than their figurative one. When Rose sneaks off to the Museum of Natural History, she stares at a meteor that fell to earth thousands of years ago. Fifty years later, Ben encounters the same space oddity. Rose, in her time, writes another note, “Where do I belong?” The gesture reminds us that Wonderstruck, as in so many of Todd Haynes’s movies like Carol, Far from Heaven, and, perhaps most directly Velvet Goldmine, which also nods at Oscar Wilde, functions as an investigation of queerness—though here, queerness is not figured along the lines of sexual orientation or gender identity so much as the otherness that comes with being differently abled and, even more immediately, with a sense of loss.
In this context, the Museum of Natural History, and the notion of museums in general, take on rich significance in Haynes’s film. Ben carries in his backpack a book called Wonderstruck, published on the occasion of an AMNH exhibition looking back on the origins of museums as cabinets of wonder. Haynes’s film beautifully captures the unique way that museums inspire curiosity, contemplation, and awe. It also riffs on the largely false preconception that museums are static and fixed. Yes, Ben and Rose wander through galleries that appear more or less the same, though they are separated by half a century. But anyone who knows the Museum of Natural History well, or the Queens Museum, which makes a star turn of its own in the movie’s third act, will recognize institutions that have changed profoundly from the periods depicted onscreen. Friedberg and Lachman deserve special praise for recreating these previous incarnations of the two august institutions featured in the film, but it’s impossible to set aside an awareness that these spaces are fundamentally different now. Even in museums, institutions that seem so resistant to change, change is always coming.
The Museum of Natural History and the Queens Museum bring Rose and Ben together, and they become the pretext through which Ben forges a friendship with Jamie (Jaden Michael), a young Queens resident also desperate for human connection. The bond between Rose and Ben is revealed at and through the Panorama of New York, one of the City’s great treasures, housed at the Queens Museum. Constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair and refurbished several times afterwards, the model features every building in the City. The Panorama is remarkable not simply because it captures the City at its vast scale but also because everyone who has ever lived in the City, or loved in it, or lost in it, can find the buildings and streets where the stories of their lives unfolded. Haynes understands this in a profound sense, and as the film moves toward its conclusion, the Panorama becomes the story of Rose’s life and, ultimately, of Ben’s as well. Julianne Moore reappears in this climactic sequence, and goes from playing a great silent film actress to being one. She shepherds Ben through vignettes that are weighed down by grief but that finally make narrative sense of the film’s two halves. Rose’s story would be unbearably sad, and the journey that brings her to Ben might seem like too much to endure, except that new relationships have been formed along the way, new connections made. One story ends and another begins; the world keeps changing. Still, as Haynes’s protagonists look at the stars in the film’s concluding shot, they have finally found, for this moment, a place to belong.