The law at theaters these days seems to be feast or famine: despite a few movies that became big events, there has been a steady stream of reports that 2017 has been a brutal year for the box office. Some Hollywood insiders have pointed the finger at RottenTomatoes, arguing that the review aggregator is to blame for one flop or another. None other than Martin Scorsese wrote a column for the Hollywood Reporter in which he criticized the website’s reductive view of labeling a movie as “fresh” or “rotten” on its opening day.
As someone who holds no absolutely sway over the TomatoMeter, I don’t think RottenTomatoes can be scapegoated for big-budget fizzles; the Transformers series has been getting panned for years, and if 2017’s installment underperformed, I doubt it’s because the movie’s target demo suddenly started caring what reviewers think. The simplest answer is that some things are critic-proof and some aren’t. So when Wonderstruck, the new film by Todd Haynes, landed with a 70% approval rating on RottenTomatoes, it was the sort of lukewarm reaction that can mean box office death to a small film looking for attention. But it’s also chum in the water for me: I’m more intrigued when an interesting director gets reviews all over the map than when the latest Marvel movie cracks 90%. In short, I’d rather watch someone be unusual, even when they falter.
So if it’s not too defiantly wishy-washy of me, I would like my own verdict of Wonderstruck to precisely straddle the line between “fresh” and “rotten”, because carefully pondered ambivalence seems like the only sane and honest response to a thoughtful, idiosyncratic film that contains both handcrafted beauty and mind-boggling frustration. Based on a children’s book by Hugo‘s Brian Selznick, who also wrote the script, Wonderstruck is one story disguised as two: the film cuts back and forth between two children, one in 1927 and one in 1977, both deaf and potentially orphaned, who run away to New York City and find a revelation at the Museum of Natural History. The 1920s scenes are shot in black and white and staged as a silent movie, while the 1970s scenes have the feel of Super 16mm. And slowly but inevitably the timelines begin to merge.
Haynes—Safe (1995), Far From Heaven (2002), I’m Not There (2007), Carol (2015)—is one of the great filmmakers to emerge from the American independent cinema of the 1990s, and it gives me no pleasure to say that he’s made his weakest film. Despite the fact that his previous features have all been either transgressive provocations, intellectual experiments, or Oscar prestige pics, Haynes is actually perfectly suited to a children’s book about emotionally resonant cultural artifacts and young heroes who tentatively feel their way towards an identity. (I’d recommend seeking out his 1993 short film Dottie Gets Spanked, which shows he could have been the LGBT answer to Tim Burton if he’d wanted to).
The issue is simply one of dramaturgy: Wonderstruck is a beginning and an end in search of a middle. The first 40 minutes are lovely and deft, with Haynes taking his customary joy in juggling styles and Carter Burwell’s music supplying an emotional ache. But once our heroes arrive at the museum—the central metaphor for the memories of a lifetime—Wonderstruck grinds to a halt, spending an hour or so as one of those deathly inert cinematic experiences where the characters are enjoying themselves much more than the audience. Consider it the perils of adaptation: children’s literature often has a simple linear quest, which can be psychologically intimate on the page but oddly removed when staged. (It doesn’t at all help that the middle act hinges on us being heavily invested in a friendship-betrayal arc with a supporting character who’s so thin he might as well be named “some kid.”)
But Wonderstruck, amidst the stasis and contortions of its second half, does have a meaningful and sincere destination in mind: the idea that some losses in life may be permanent, but that we have to find a way to be happy anyway. This is, needless to say, something of a truth bomb to drop onto an audience of parents with their kids. And it’s a testament to Haynes, Selznick, and company that the film remains so optimistic and kid-friendly, in part because, like the best children’s literature, it keeps faith that children have a deeper well of emotional understanding than they even realize. This is a family film that opens with the famous Oscar Wilde quote about lying in the gutter but looking up at the stars, and then ends by making those stars literal. Considering the film’s final message, it’s mournfully fitting that Wonderstruck is bound to fade away quickly. But that message deserves consideration, just as it deserves to belong to a much better movie: that all you kids in the audience will someday learn that you’re small travelers passing through history—but what a joy passing through history can be.
Wonderstruck is in select theaters and will eventually end up on Amazon Prime. They’re never too young to get “Space Oddity” stuck in their head.