Todd Haynes is perhaps America’s greatest living director. Films like Far From Heaven, I’m Not There and Carol have transformed the landscape of modern cinema and at times during Wonderstruck his genius in on full display. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the novel on which Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is based. Wonderstruck tells the stories of Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a young girl growing up in 1920s New Jersey and Ben (Oakes Fegley), a young boy from the midwest in the 1970s who, for different reasons, are both deaf, giving them a feeling of alienation them from the outside world and from those around them. Driven by their desires for human connection the two children travel to their respective New Yorks; Rose to find her mother, a famous silent film actress, and Ben to try and find information about his father, who he has no recollection of.
In her section of the film Simmonds puts in a terrifically moving performance, embodying the conceit of silent cinema that the face can say more than a thousand words. She is utterly mesmerising, and Haynes’ longtime director of photography Edward Lachman is at his very best, using stunning black and white cinematography and framing Rose in such a way that her lack of audial awareness is represented in the audience’s restricted field of vision. The emotions on Rose’s face are matched to perfection by Carter Burwell’s deeply moving score.
In Rose’s story of self discovery there is a beautiful short film dying to stand on its own two feet. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is spent following Ben on his journey around New York. While the perfectly recreated 1970s is impressive and visually arresting, there is little in his story that holds any interest. The rambling story is one that has been written down and filmed many times before and with much more style and novelty. There are elements in Ben’s story that echo that of Hugo Cabret’s; lost parents, the lack of any sense of belonging. The friendship between Ben and Jamie (Jaden Michael), who he meets on the streets of Queens and who shows him around the Museum of Natural History and helps him to uncover the secrets of his familial history, is also reminiscent of the one between Hugo and Isabelle. In this friendship there is some joy for the audience, but the scenes between them also demonstrate the immense challenge that acting deaf is for a child actor, a challenge that Fegley never quite overcomes. (Simmonds has a significant advantage over Fegley in this respect in that she is deaf herself).
When the two separate threads of the story finally start to weave together and the connection between Rose and Ben unravels there is some emotional power and the diorama scene near the end of the film is beautiful but the final moments, much like Ben’s section of the film, feel predictable, cliched and overwrought.
★★ and a half