Cannes 2017: Wonderstruck Review
1927, Hoboken, New Jersey — Rose (Millicent Simmonds), an idealistic, young deaf girl, becomes discontent with her tired home life and dreams of her favorite actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore.) Bored of living with her strict father, Rose decides to run away to New York City to see her idol in her new play on Broadway.
1977, Gunflint Lake, Minnesota — Ben (Oakes Fegley) needs answers after his mother (Michelle Williams) dies in a car accident. He is unhappy living with his aunt and cousins. One day, he finds a clue of where to find his absentee father. While attempting to make communication, he is struck by lightning and loses his hearing, but when he wakes up in the hospital, he is even more committed to finding his father in New York
Director Todd Haynes weaves these two stories together with extreme stylistic and aesthetic individualities. Rose’s tale is told in the style of a black-and-white silent film, all the way down to the score. Ben’s story takes on the aesthetics of the 70s from the clothes to the soundtrack. Haynes’ direction is so assured that he can make these styles compliment each other and create a singular tension throughout Wonderstruck. The film couldn’t exist without one of these two stories as it finds cohesion in the parallels of Rose’s and Ben’s adventures.
Todd Haynes has always made cinematic magic for a niche audience, but with Wonderstruck he is appealing to his largest audience yet. Adapting a children’s novel by the same author as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo seems like a huge departure for the director who has made movies so radical as the Superstar, Safe and I’m Not There, however, reinvention is Haynes’ best game. In Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes has created the perfect children’s movie while also making an ode to the silent era of filmmaking and New York City. It is emotionally profound in a way that Todd Haynes hardly ever is and intellectually deep as one would come to expect — this is perhaps the only children’s movie to pay homage to Béla Tarr.
Thematically, Wonderstruck belongs in the Haynes’ oeuvre. The permanent outsider has always made movies that, in one way or another, are about people discovering themselves and finding their place along the way. Ben and Rose’s plights are the most obvious case of that as they both live in predominantly hearing worlds. But, the film steers away from showing their deafness as adversity, especially in Rose’s case. Haynes’ creates his cinematic rules to capture the experiences of the kids better, showing he understands them and their search for understanding of their experiences.
Simmonds’ turn as Rose is what one would expect from a Todd Haynes leading lady and it is made all the more impressive because of her age an ingenue status. In her debut performance, Simmonds can match the expressionistic, curious qualities of Rooney Mara’s performance as Therese in Carol as well as bringing her youthful sense. It is some of the finest acting ever put on screen by someone her age. Conversely, Fegley’s performance is serviceable but not the revelations that Simmonds, or even his screen mate, Jaden Michael, are.
The adult cast is left with little to do. Julianne Moore turn in the first act is fun but brief, and as the older Rose she is tender, but the performance is far too passive to leave much of an impression.
From a technical side, Wonderstruck is nothing less than immaculate. Cinematographer Edward Lachman returns after photographing Carol, and his work here is equally as impressive. The black-and-white scenes are filled with such authenticity that it is easy to forget they were filmed in the age of talkies (read: billion dollar superhero franchises). The monochromatic look is grainy and gorgeous — a true replication rather that imitation. It doesn’t hurt that the production design is so lush and dense, which must have made the museum sequences easy shoots.
The real star of Wonderstruck is Carter Burwell, who has written his best score and an instant classic. If it weren’t for the beautiful music, Rose’s storyline would have fallen flat. Burwell’s score elevates the film’s gentle emotions without being forceful. The score paired with Haynes’ avoidance of cloying melodramatic appeals makes for well-earned and surprising tears.
Wonderstruck is Haynes’ warmest and “largest” film to-date, and he didn’t freeze at the sight of a challenge. As impressive and mysterious as his more queer, academic and distant works are, Wonderstruck shows a side of Haynes that is worth revisiting. I wouldn’t like for the rest of his movies to be made for children, but I want to see all children adventure movies to be made by him.