Drama Family

'Wonderstruck' Film Review: A beautiful journey through time with two children in search of love and answers

October 27, 2017Siobhán Finn

Imagine pitching a movie set in two different time periods, told in black and white and color, with minimal spoken dialogue because the two main characters are deaf but don't use American Sign Language (ASL), and starring an untrained child actor. Only a director as talented as Todd Haynes could bring a project as intimidating as that to wondrous life.

The year is 1977, and Ben (Oakes Fegley), having recently lost his mother (Michelle Williams), is curious about the father she refused to discuss. After an accident leaves him deaf, he flees Gunflint, Minnesota for New York City, where he believes his father may live. Once there, he is befriended by Jamie (Jaden Michael), who takes him on an adventure through the Museum of Natural History. Meanwhile in 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) lives a silent life with a father who holds her in thoughtless disdain. She runs away to New York to find her mother, the famous silver screen star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). The city is dangerous for any young child alone, but for two kids unable to hear the danger coming, both Ben and Rose have to be twice as careful.

Cinematically speaking, the sections of the movie concerning Rose are the most interesting. Haynes borrows much from the silent movie era, including choosing to film the 1927 scenes in black and white and — in keeping with the movies Rose's mother stars in — choosing to have composer Carter Burwell's beautiful score be the only sound the audience hears during these sections of the film. As a result, when Rose goes to New York City, the impeccable production design situates the viewer immediately without needless exposition.

In contrast, Ben's 1977 New York City is full of familiar music that is contemporary to the age but doesn't necessarily speak directly to the era. It's a Big Apple filled with people of color, boxy sedans and a general sense of grime that was endemic to the city at the time. After the subtlety of Rose's scenes, Ben's feel heavy-handed. It is not until he and Jamie arrive at the museum that Haynes' magic finally kicks in.

The depiction of deaf people in Wonderstruck is well handled. Although Moore and Fegley are not hearing impaired, Simmonds is. Interestingly, of the three, she is also the only one whose character does not use ASL to communicate, whereas Fegley's Ben is taught to finger-spell by Jamie (who learned in school), though he generally relies on notes to navigate his new, silent world. Both Rose and Ben experience the loneliness of their disability but — in part due to their disparate eras — it is only Rose who is truly isolated because of it.

Based on his book of the same name, screenwriter Brian Selznick slips seamlessly between 1927 and 1977 without losing the audience's confidence in his storytelling abilities. This becomes a truly impressive feat during the third act, when Selznick finally joins the two threads and Ben is told Rose's story using panoramas and miniatures of New York. Fegley and Simmonds both rise to the challenge of Selznick's script, but it is newcomer Simmonds who truly shines. She doesn't require the glitz of technicolor or flowery words to do so either. Instead, she out-performs the other children in the cast and more than holds her own in scenes with Oscar-winner Moore.

Some movies have to yell to be heard over the din of over-amplified hype machines that promise big names, bigger action, and budgets equal to the GDP of a small nation. This is not one of those movies. Wonderstruck whispers to its audience through a beautiful score and great writing, reminding people that the best films speak for themselves even when their characters cannot. Haynes trusts his audience to understand and embrace this high concept story, so reward that trust and get struck by wonder.

Wonderstruck releases October 27th, 2017 from Elevation Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG for thematic elements and smoking. Its runtime is 1 hr. 57 min.

You May Also Like