Directed by Todd Haynes.
Starring Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams, and Jaden Michael.
Two parallel stories. In the 1970s, young Ben is bereft after the death of his mother. A discovery among her possessions leads him to go in search of his father in New York. Back in the 1920s, Rose is obsessed with a silent movie star and travels to the same city to find her. Both children have something in common. They are deaf.
You know what you’re going to get with a Todd Haynes movie, don’t you? His enduring love of the past, especially the 50s, beautiful craftsmanship, but until now he’s films have always had adults in mind. Now, with Wonderstruck, he turns a young adult novel into a movie that’s aimed squarely at families and which only partly takes him outside of his comfort zone.
One foot definitely remains there, as he’s still relishing his love of the past, but this time two different decades – the 1970s and 1920s. In the 70s, we meet Ben (Oakes Fegley) who leaves his home in the Midwest after the death of his mother to find his father in New York City. It’s an eye-opener for him, a dangerous, grimy place where people have shaggy hair and wear unfamiliar clothes. At the same time, we’re taken back to Hoboken in a black and white 1920s, re-created like a silent movie, when Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is unhappy at home with her father and now discovers that the talkies are about to take over her local cinema. She decides to go New York as well, this time to track down her acting idol, Lillian Mayhew.
Their narratives run in parallel, but the two children have an additional bond. They are both deaf. Rose is profoundly so, unable to hear anything or to speak and with no knowledge of sign language. Her father simply shouts at her and she retreats into her own world, a silent one where the movies provide her only escape. But while she has captions to read, we have to lip-read the actors in these sequences for ourselves. We are, essentially, in Rose’s shoes. These scenes are exquisitely re-created in glorious black and white and complemented with exactly the right style of music.
While the assumption is that Rose was born deaf, Ben loses his hearing in the 70s because of an accident. So he can still speak, but just can’t hear himself, which means he appears to be yelling all the time. Like Rose, he doesn’t use sign language because he’s never learnt it, so he doesn’t belong to either the deaf community or the hearing one. A notepad and pen is the best he can do when it comes to communicating. And, unlike Rose, he has a small amount of hearing, which means he hears people talking but can’t distinguish the words. Rose and Ben’s parallel journeys are frequently dialogue-free, reinforcing how out of place both children are in the big city.
Wonderstruck is something of a cinematic jigsaw, one that baffles for a long time and makes you wonder if the pieces are actually going to fit. In truth, not all of them do: the museum scenes are over-long and feel contrived at times. But it all falls into place in one scene in a New York second hand bookshop that’s so meticulously re-created that you can almost sniff that familiar warm, musty smell. Haynes never loses his eye for detail.
Nor does he short change us in terms of the performances. Regular muse Julianne Moore has a smaller role than you might expect, so he has to rely on the children to carry the bulk of the story. Oakes Fegley is a suitably bereft and bewildered Ben but most impressive of all is Millicent Simmonds as Rose, serious and determined most of the time but, when her face breaks into a smile, it’s really something to see.
While it’s had a hard time in some quarters, Wonderstruck isn’t exactly a dud, but it’s not wonderful either. You have to keep the faith, stick with it and you will be rewarded, although the abiding memory is of a film that looks beautiful but has too little in the way of substance to make it truly memorable.
Wonderstruck is screened at the 61st London Film Festival on October 5th, 6th and 8th.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ Movie: ★★