Todd Haynes’s contribution to Cannes this year is two stories in one: Separated by fifty years, two deaf children escape their homes to New York City in search of something new. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmons) longs to meet a famous actress, while in 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) goes looking for his father after the death of his mother. Along the way, they are harassed by figures of authority, and find refuge in the American Museum of Natural History. Although clichéd, the story finds room for genuine warmth and sweetness, and is worth a watch for any family.
Because “Wonderstruck” focuses on deaf characters, the sound design, soundtrack, and visual storytelling take precedence. Each of these aspects is different for the two timeframes. The scenes in 1927 are in black and white, and trade heavily in the dramatic overtures and hyper–expressive physical acting of films of that era. Haynes recaptures the feel of silent pictures, and uses its tropes such as pianos mimicking sound effects, and one–note characters surrounding a protagonist to create a simple story almost solely through visual storytelling.
Ben’s tale, on the other hand, is a silent film in the modern age. Although much of this section contains audible dialogue, Ben’s main form of communication is writing on a notepad, an update of the classic intertitles. The soundtrack too has moved on from the heavy piano of the ’20s to the lazy guitar riffs and funky bass runs of the ’70s. Where Rose’s story is told in black and white, the more contemporary segments are in vibrant color, making up for the general lack of sound.
There is inherent risk in child–led movies, as truly great child actors are hard to come by. Fegley puts in a very solid performance, and holds down the majority of the film. The segments starring Simmons, however, show off her remarkable talent without giving her a single word. She is the most charming person in the film, and manages to be so simply with her smile and self–cut bob. “Wonderstruck” also stars Julianne Moore, doing excellent work in a double role.
“Wonderstruck” is easily compared to other such heartwarming tales of precocious kids, like “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” or “Hugo”. The latter comparison makes even more sense, given that both “Hugo” and “Wonderstruck” are adaptations of books by Brian Selznick, who wrote the screenplay for “Wonderstruck” as well. In both cases, the films emphasize the importance of innocent appreciation for art, beauty, and knowledge.
“Hugo,” however, has a more focused story and theme, while the many threads of “Wonderstruck” lead to a more muddled message. None of the themes within the film clash, per se, but it is difficult to draw the connections between the establishing line of the film—an Oscar Wilde quote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”—and the conclusion. Indeed, it is hard to say what exactly Haynes is trying to do with “Wonderstruck,” other than creating an aesthetic experience.
Perhaps this aspect of the film is its strongest connection to “Hugo” and “Extremely Loud”—in all three cases, aesthetics are valued over cohesion in terms of themes or plot. The emotional climax and denouement of “Wonderstruck” takes the already stylized visuals and pushes them well over the top. The history that connects the twin stories is told by an (extant) panorama in miniature of all of New York City, and (made–up) tiny scale models with faces framed by lockets. There appears to be no good reason for any of this theatrics, other than the fact that it is gorgeous.
This is not to say that “Wonderstruck” is not a moving film, or does not have sublime moments. The most remarkable scene features three characters: one deaf person and one hearing person who speak sign language, and one deaf person who doesn’t. The difficulties of communicating in such a situation beautifully stagger the emotional moments in the lead up to the climax, and gives aesthetic space for them to land.
Overall, “Wonderstruck” is a sweet but simple movie, and should be praised for representing the many hearing–impaired children in the world. It will be interesting to hear reactions from those in the hearing–impaired community, as the film may stray into the territory of fetishizing the “specialness” of their condition. However, it largely seems to avoid that charge, and instead beautifully, if simply, tells the story of two deaf children from their own, often disregarded, position.
—Staff writer Ethan B. Reichsman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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