Art and Experience: 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.

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.

Unfortunately for Rose, however, her time is changing. It’s 1927, and the sound era is about to arrive like a crack of thunder. (Rose’s favorite movie theater makes the transition while she’s inside it.) Suddenly, it seems as though Rose will fall into the cracks if she can’t find a place where she belongs. And so, with an urgent spark of energy, she hops a ferry to the big city in search of her favorite silent picture star (Julianne Moore).

As in Selznick’s novel, which Haynes adheres to so closely that the book’s illustrations could have served as storyboards, “Wonderstruck” fluidly cuts between Ben and Rose’s respective quests, careful to note the rhymes between the two narratives without making the connection so direct that the story doubles itself into redundancy. On the contrary, the plots flow into one another like the verse and chorus of a classic pop song; Ben offers the story its bones, Rose its hooks. Her segments are sparser, richer, and far more memorable — they’re daring and aggressively stylized to a degree that Haynes doesn’t match for his male hero’s more plot-driven portions — but they wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the context that his journey provides them.

There’s a good chance this would have been a more balanced and visceral experience had Haynes followed Selznick’s lead and directly conveyed the boy’s hearing loss, especially because allowing viewers to hear what people say to the character ends up having significant consequences for how we arrive at the third act. But “Wonderstruck” isn’t a film about either one of its threads so much as it’s a film about how they intertwine, and where.

To that point, yes, this is a New York Movie. It’s bound to very specific moments in the city’s past, and Ed Lachman’s sweltering, staggeringly evocative cinematography brings them all back to the present. This degree of verisimilitude hasn’t been seen since the ’70s themselves (several of the street scenes could be seamlessly edited into “The French Connection”), and the clarity helps restore a sense of awe to Manhattan, to the confluence of chance encounters and shared discoveries that give the city its history.

Likewise, Carter Burwell’s score does the same for the city’s people, and the objects by which they’re remembered. The mammoth amount of music he’s written for this movie includes some of his best and most ambitious work to date, from the propulsive wind and piano pieces that flesh out the silent-era melodies to the psych drone that welcomes us back to New York, every note hints that the film is building toward an incredible sense of cohesion.

That last crescendo does arrive, and with seismic force, the film climaxing with a 10-minute expository monologue in which Haynes reaches all the way back to “Superstar” in order to find the perfect visual language. His choice, and the revelations that result, are best experienced for the first time at their proper moment, but his idiosyncratic solution underlines the raw memory of objects in a film that attributes so much to how we choose to curate them. The film’s tidy coda may be more emotionally transparent than most of Haynes’ works, but the beautiful sequence is no less wrenching for that. This is a soul-stirring and fiercely uncynical film that suggests the entire world is a living museum for the people we’ve lost, and that we should all hope to leave some of ourselves behind in its infinite cabinet of wonders.

Grade: A-

“Wonderstruck” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions will release it in theaters on October 20th.

Source: Indiewire-David Ehrlich