The most astonishing achievement of Wonderstruck is how Haynes manages to take advantage of these novelties without making them feel like gimmicks; the two story strands fold in together elegantly, each giving the other little nudges. They alternate Carter Burwell’s ornate music in Rose’s story with the muted sounds inside Ben’s head, a risky choice that works (she’s presumably filled those silences by now, but they’re still new and strange to him). As you’d probably expect from both the style and the subject matter, there’s little to no dialogue – yet the audience I saw it with was afraid to make a sound, lest they crack this fragile object.
The stories eventually intersect, as they’re bound to; we’ve all seen a movie or two. But it happens with an emotional force that, put simply, just clobbered me – and I can’t really pinpoint how or why. There’s just something about the way Ben reveals himself to the people he finds in that bookstore, and the way they answer his questions, that’s overwhelming and true, yet steadfastly clear of the maudlin.
The key may come a few minutes later, when the full story is told to Ben (and to us), and brought to life not with flashbacks, but with a beautiful sequences of miniatures. It has a jewelry-box intimacy that’s perfectly in tune with the film – but it’s also an unexpected throwback to Superstar, Haynes’s first feature, which also used what could’ve been a silly gimmick (the life of Karen Carpenter, told with Barbie dolls) and invested it with an uncommon poignancy. And what’s ultimately so wonderful about Wonderstruck is the same thing that was so charming about Hugo, or Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are: the way that, in shifting to a very different audience than usual, these adult-oriented filmmakers discovered their most universal themes, ideas, and emotions.
“Wonderstruck” is out Friday in limited release.