Directed by Todd Haynes and written by Brian Selznick that is based on his own novel, Wonderstruck is the story of a young deaf boy whose story parallels with the story of a deaf young girl from 50 years before as they try to find some mysterious connection that only they know. The film is a story about two kids who encounter something that only they can understand in a world that is complicated. Starring Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, James Urbaniak, Amy Hargreaves, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams, and Julianne Moore. Wonderstruck is a majestic and ravishing film from Todd Haynes.
Set in both 1927 and 1977, the film follows two paralleling narratives involving two different kids who both embark on a journey of self-discovery as it relates to their own families but also a place where they can belong despite their deafness. It’s a film that is about not just loss but also the need to find some idea of family and a sense of belonging where the centerpiece of this journey relates to an exhibit in a museum. Brian Selznick’s screenplay does follow this paralleling narrative that takes place both in 1927 for this young girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and in 1977 for this boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) who are both connected in some way though the latter became deaf in a strange freak accident. The former is a young girl who lives at her father’s house in New Jersey who collects clipping of pictures of this famous silent film actress in Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) just before the emergence of sound would come into cinema.
The latter is a boy who just lost his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams) in an accident as he lives with his aunt and cousins where he finds one of his mother’s belongings believing that’s where his long-lost father is. Rose is someone who is fascinated by this actress as well as create paper sculptures that would annoy her father prompting her to run away from home as it would be a similar situation for Ben as he decides to leave Minnesota to find his father as the destination for both Rose and Ben is New York City. Both of them are in the search for someone yet they also encounter an exhibit at a museum as the stories parallel one another with some surprising revelations that connects them both.
Todd Haynes’ direction is definitely stylish yet also magical in the fact it takes place in two different time periods with the 1927 portion shot in black-and-white and the 1977 portion shot in color. Shot on location in New York City for both settings but also in Peekskill, New York as some of the scenes in the older parts of the city as well as parts of Minnesota. Haynes employs a lot of paralleling imagery in some of the wide and medium shots in some of the locations that both Rose and Ben would venture into as well as some of the intimate moments as Rose often comes into conflict with her father while Ben is just trying to get to his old cabin that he lived with his mother unaware that it’s going to be sold. There are also some close-ups as it often play into the plight that Rose and Ben have with Rose being someone who was born deaf and is just eager to be loved while Ben is just confused as he can hear very little but has a hard time with his newfound deafness where Haynes’ camera is often playing up this sense of anguish and confusion.
Haynes’ presentation in some of the silent films that Lillian Mayhew stars in is a homage to the silent films of the past but also this emergence of change that is to emerge as there’s a lightness to the camera movements as it include a lot of scenes without sound to show the idea of being deaf. There are also scenes during the third act as it play into revelations that both Rose and Ben endure into their own destination but also their fascination into the world themselves when they both visit the Metropolitan Museum of Arts as it relates to a book about a certain exhibit that Rose encountered. A book that Ben believes belonged to his father with a bookmark from a store that maybe the key to the whereabouts of his father. What Haynes does is parallel these events which would represent an air of salvation for not just Rose and Ben but also in how they’re connected. Overall, Haynes craft an intoxicating and touching film about two deaf kids from different periods of time trying to find themselves and to be loved.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman does phenomenal work with the film’s cinematography with its usage of stylish lighting textures and schemes for many of the scenes set in 1977 to play up the look of the films of the 70s while the scenes in 1927 are shot in black-and-white to play into the world that Rose encounters. Editor Affonso Goncalves does amazing work with the editing in creating some stylish yet seamless cuts to create transitions for the two narratives and find a way to match them that include a few stylish montages. Production designer Mark Friedberg, with set decorator Debra Schutt plus art directors Ryan Heck and Kim Jennings, does brilliant work with the look of the cabin Ben and his mom used to stay in as well as the house Rose lived in with her father as well as some of the panoramas and such the two protagonists would encounter. Costume designer Sandy Powell does excellent work with the costumes from the dress that Mayhew wears for a play rehearsal and some of the clothes of 1927 to the stylish yet colorful clothing of the 70s.
Special effects makeup artists Adam Bailey and Michael Maddi do fantastic work with the look of a few characters including an old woman that Ben sees whom he would meet later on. Visual effects supervisor Louis Morin does nice work with the visual effects as it largely feature some set-dressing for some scenes in New York City in both 1927 and 1977 along with some other visuals in the panoramas that both kids encounter. Sound mixer Drew Kunin does superb work with the sound as it help play into the atmosphere of some of the locations but also the little bits of sound that Ben would hear in his growing deafness along with the lack of actual sounds to play into Rose’s perspective. The film’s music by Carter Burwell is incredible for its somber orchestral score that appears mainly in the Rose sequences with its string arrangement flourishes but also in some playful organ music for Mayhew’s film as well as some stylish ambient-style pieces while music supervisor Randall Poster cultivate this wondrous music soundtrack that features pieces by Robert Fripp & Brian Eno, Little Esther Phillips, Rose Royce, Gene Austin, Sweet, Eumir Deodato, and David Bowie including a performance of Space Oddity by the Langley Schools Music Project.
The casting by Laura Rosenthal is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles from Lauren Ridloff as a maid at Rose’s home in Pearl, Amy Hargreaves as Ben’s Aunt Jenny, Murphy Guyver as a security officer who catches Rose, Morgan Turner as one of Ben’s cousins in Janet who goes to his cabin to smoke and wear her aunt Elaine’s clothes, Raul Torres as a museum worker in 1977, James Urbaniak as Rose’s father Dr. Kincaid, Jaden Michael as a kid named Jamie that Ben meets who helps him out as his father works at the museum, Corey Michael Smith as a museum worker that Rose meets in Walter, and Tom Noonan as a bookstore owner. Michelle Williams is brilliant in her small role as Ben’s mother Elaine as she is seen in flashbacks as someone who doesn’t tell Ben about his father while is trying to maintain her own life not knowing what is going to happen.
Julianne Moore is incredible in a dual role as the silent film actress Lilian Mayhew and an old woman that Ben sees at the museum as the latter is someone that is a frequent visitor as Ben would see her again later while the former is this luminous presence as an actress on the screen while is also someone else off-screen upon her meeting with Rose. Oakes Fegley is remarkable as Ben as a young kid in the 1970s who becomes deaf in a freak accident as he deals with his newfound deafness but also the loss of his mother as well as the need to find his father. Finally, there’s Millicent Simmonds in a phenomenal performance as Rose as a deaf girl who is enamored with this silent film star while dealing with the cruelty she gets from her father. Though it is a largely silent performance, Simmonds conveys a lot of angst and emotion into her performance as she is a true discovery.
Wonderstruck is a sensational film from Todd Haynes that feature two great leading performances from Oakes Fegley and Millicent Simmonds. Along with its supporting cast, gorgeous visuals, study of identity and family, a mesmerizing music score and soundtrack, and its study of living with deafness. The film is an enchanting film that doesn’t just explore two kids dealing with their deafness and place in the world as it is a film about the desire to connect as it is one of Haynes’ more accessible films. In the end, Wonderstruck is a spectacular film from Todd Haynes.
Todd Haynes Films: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story - Poison - Dottie Gets Spanked - Safe (1995 film) - Velvet Goldmine - Far from Heaven - I'm Not There - Mildred Pierce (2011 TV Miniseries) - Carol (2015 film) - Dark Waters (2019 film) – The Velvet Underground – The Auteurs #3: Todd Haynes
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