Stars: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds
Released: 2017 (London Film Festival)
Reviewer: Hannah Woodhead
For his seventh feature film, director Todd Haynes has turned to new subject matter: children. With a critically-acclaimed filmography including Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There and 2015’s stunning drama Carol, it’s unsurprising that anticipation for Wonderstruck has been high since it was first announced. Adapted by Brian Selznick from his young adult novel of the same name, this visual delight is a rare breed and a complete joy to watch.
Twin dialogues unfold within the story, the first set in 1977 and belonging to 12-year-old Ben, who lives in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota and is trying to come to terms with the death of his mother, and the second in 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey, concerning young Rose Kincaid, a deaf child who feels isolated from the world around her and relies on the films of her idol Lillian Mayhew to provide her escape from the world around her. Both leave their homes and set off to find answers in the city that never sleeps, and over the course of the film, their narratives become intertwined.
There’s some spiritual kinship between the film and 2011’s Scorsese epic Hugo, which was also based on a Selznick novel – the author has an extraordinary gift for capturing the world through the eyes of children. Yet Wonderstruck does not have magic or steampunk fantasy to bring it to life – instead, it must rely on its young leads, in the form of Oakes Fegley and Millicent Simmons. It’s hard to believe that this is Simmons’ first screen role, as she shines as Rose, bringing an acute sense of vulnerability and tenacity to a non-speaking role. As a young deaf actor, she is sure to be an inspiration to many who do not see themselves represented in Hollywood, and Wonderstuck firmly establishes her as one to watch. Similarly, Fegley was praised for his role in 2015’s Pete’s Dragon, and again delivers a spellbinding performance as Ben, who leaves home in search of answers about the father he never met.
Against the dreamy backdrop of New York City, in particular the Natural History Museum, Wonderstruck feels like a love letter to New York as much as it does a story about identity and loneliness. The Big Apple is a secondary character, becoming a place of opportunity for its young visitors. The supporting cast comes in the form of perpetually wonderful Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, though the latter is only on screen briefly. Moore too is captivating, but the film really belongs to its young leads, who approach their roles with maturity beyond their years, delivering a film about growing up that manages to encapsulate the unique feeling of wonder and pain that those years of life bring.
The visuals of Wonderstruck are also a treat, as Haynes uses dreamy black and white for the 1920s scenes and colour-negative film for the 1970s segments. The 1920s films are shot without dialogue, relying entirely on Carter Burwell’s magical score, and as the film flits between time, place and colour, it produces a dizzying effect, mirroring the sense of confusion felt by Ben and Rose as they try to find their place in the world. Visually stunning and emotionally arresting, Wonderstuck is a sweet, magical story that manages to avoid saccharinity in order to deliver a poignant mediation on family, belonging, and fate.