Todd Haynes’ new work is full of wonder and imagination.
Selznick also wrote and illustrated The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was made into the universally acclaimed film Hugo by director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan. This time around, Selznick wrote the screenplay adaptation for Wonderstruck himself, with some guidance and mentorship from Logan.
Wonderstruck is unique in many ways. It’s a film of parallel stories, images, sounds, and characters. The film opens in 1977 with the story of Ben, a twelve-year-old boy in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota who has just lost his single mom in a car accident and is now living with his aunt and cousins. Lonely and missing his mother, Ben (Oakes Fegley) snoops through her things to try and find clues about the father he’s never known. While snooping, a freak accident causes Ben to lose his hearing and become completely deaf.
Meanwhile, in 1927, a girl of 12 named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. She has been deaf since birth and is kept sequestered in her house by her domineering father. In her room, she makes models of buildings out of newspaper pages and she keeps an elaborate scrapbook devoted to a silent film actress named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Finally, Rose makes the decision to take the ferry to New York alone and look for Mayhew rather than stay trapped in her house.
Similarly, Ben finds a bookmark from a bookstore in New York that he assumes to be from his father and runs away on a Greyhound to try and find him.
At this point, the film follows both stories of Rose and Ben, two fully deaf twelve-year-olds alone in New York who are desperately searching for someone they believe they’re connected to. As the two, fifty years apart in time, travel to many of the same locations, primarily the American Museum of Natural History, the film cuts back and forth between them, with Ben’s story told in a vivid palette of colors that reflect the 70s and Rose’s told in full black and white.
As both characters are deaf, the incredible soundtrack by Carter Burwell expresses a great deal of the drama and narrative force of the film in the style of a silent film. This brave and unique creative choice pays off. There are long stretches of the two-hour film that do not contain any real dialogue at all. The audience may be able to do a little lip reading, like their protagonists are, but the story is told purely through visuals and the soundtrack.
Of course, when Ben begins to uncover more clues in his story and meet hearing characters, dialogue returns, though characters write out notes on pieces of paper when they need to ‘say’ things to Ben.
Finally, Ben’s story intersects with Rose’s story and the two meet in 1977 as all the film’s mysteries begin to become solved. All in all, Wonderstruck is a creatively unique offering, full of imagination and compassionately filmed to showcase the awe of how children see the world. Although ultimately a children’s story, the uniqueness and inventiveness of the film make it appealing to all audiences.
Wonderstruck is directed by Todd Haynes with a screenplay by Bob Selznick. The film opens in theaters on October 20 and stars Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, and Jaden Michael.
Photo credit: Indiewire.