Wonderstruck tells two parallel stories, set 50 years apart. In one, a little girl named Rose travels to New York City to track down her mother, a famous silent film star, circa 1927. New York City is no place for a kid traveling alone but Rose, who is deaf, is brave and smart. Meanwhile, in 1977, Ben is another runaway on the loose after his mother dies and an accident leaves him newly deaf. Determined to find the father he never knew, he too heads for New York City. And since you’ve surely seen a movie before, you can probably guess that at some point these stories will somehow intersect.
Millicent Simmonds, deaf in real life, had no prior acting experience before being cast, but she wowed both director Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore with her audition. On set she communicated primarily through an American Sign Language interpreter, while Haynes sent many cast members on a walk through NYC wearing noise-cancelling headphones to get a sense of the city’s quiet side. Rose’s portions of the film are shot in black and white, and Simmonds has a terrific face for it – curious and expressive, her eyes lighting the way.
Oakes Fegley plays Ben, a kid who feels orphaned and is further isolated when he loses his hearing. Unlike Rose, his deafness feels more like an obstacle – he hasn’t yet learned to navigate the world without hearing. And neither have we, but Haynes occasionally immerses us is quiet, the sort of quiet that feels pregnant with possibility.
Todd Haynes is the king of period pieces, and Wonderstruck affords him the opportunity to hit the jackpot: double periods! Nobody could embrace it any better. And he certainly has a knack for delighting us visually, bringing art to life, and cities to life, and museums to life, and inner life to life. What he stumbles with are the required shifts in tone. We flip back and forth between the two children’s stories and Haynes has tried to make each story line look and feel distinct. But those shifts can feel abrupt. Haynes drenches us in visual poetry but there’s an emotional disconnect that kept me from being truly wonderstruck. The sets are great, the costumes are great, the score is really something, but the parts somehow add up to just an okay whole. It lacks in whimsy but there is still joy to be found in discovering something new.
***And since we’re all here and you’re every so kindly reading, can we just take a minute to consider this: first-run movies are rarely accessible to deaf people. They often have to attend special screenings, or use special equipment, and if those aren’t available, they’re waiting for a DVD. There’s an easy fix. Why not make movies more accessible by simply captioning them?