Wonder can be a hard quality to capture on screen — and when you title a movie “Wonderstruck,” as Todd Haynes did with his gorgeous but problematic drama that screened on Thursday morning at the Cannes Film Festival, you may be all but promising something that’s difficult for even a filmmaker as gifted as Haynes to deliver.
And no, “Wonderstruck” isn’t as magical as it would need to be to pull off the sleight-of-hand that Haynes is attempting. Jumping between two different time periods and several drastically different looks, including black-and-white silent-film sequences and gritty, overheated urban passages, the director has created a bold formal exercise that doesn’t quite connect.
That won’t be true for all viewers: Judging by the robust applause at the end of the film’s press screening at the Grand Theatre Lumiere, “Wonderstruck” casts enough of a spell to enrapture many who saw it, even if it didn’t connect with all of us.
The film is based on the book by Brian Selznick, best known for the illustrated novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” that Martin Scorsese turned into the 3D gem “Hugo.” Like that work, “Wonderstruck” looks through the eyes of a child at the world of adults — in this case, two children, one in 1927 and one in 1977. Both are deaf, and they share another connection that doesn’t become clear until the end of the film.
Until then, the two stories run on parallel tracks but in dramatically different ways. The 1927 story follows Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a fan of silent films who runs away from her strict father in Hoboken to explore New York City; these sequences are themselves staged like a silent movie, with a luminous B&W look and a sound design in which Carter Burwell’s score does the heavy lifting.
Those scenes are intercut with 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley), who lives in Gunflint, Minnesota and becomes deaf after an accident. Searching for the father he never knew in the aftermath of the death of his mother (Michelle Williams), he too heads to New York City, traveling some of the same streets that Rose did half a century earlier.
But those streets look very different. Manhattan 1927 fairly glows, Manhattan 1977 is trashy and decrepit, and Haynes’ brilliant go-to cinematographer Ed Lachman lavishes his usual care on both of them.
As a formal exercise in the look and feel of cinema, “Wonderstruck” is dazzling, particularly in the way it brings a silent world to life; as a piece of storytelling, it struggles to find balance, and then relies on a string of coincidences to tie things together.
Still, those coincidences yield the single most magical sequence. At the end of “Wonderstruck,” Julianne Moore appears in the second of the two roles she plays in the film. An extended sequence set at the huge New York City diorama built for the 1964 World’s Fair not only completes the story, but its use of intricate mechanical models is playful and mesmerizing.
As a director, Haynes usually picks a single tone and basks in it: He last came to Cannes two years ago with the exquisite period romance “Carol,” which didn’t contain a single false note and deserved far more than the shared acting award the Cannes jury gave it. But he’s also a bold adventurist who has orchestrated schizophrenic movies in the past, most notably his virtuoso Bob Dylan kaleidoscope “I’m Not There.”
“Wonderstruck,” though, feels oddly dislocated for Haynes. The film, which will be released by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions, is a blend of the graceful and the garish that reaches for magic but ends up more of a cabinet of curiosities than one of wonder.