Do you remember what it was like to be a kid? That boundless sense of wonder, that feeling that everything could be magical? Trips to museums or big cities were the most spectacular experiences, and even though sometimes things were tough at home, you had your friends to cheer you up. Wonderstruck, the latest film from Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, Carol), is about that sense of wonder that kids have. It is, in a way, a movie for kids, about kids, but it is still enjoyable for adults as well. Especially those adults who can still remember that kid inside of us, even if he’s hiding somewhere in a dark corner. The film interweaves two storylines following two deaf kids as they escape their homes and travel to New York City.
Wonderstruck is a very ambitious film. Haynes takes on the especially unique challenge of combining two stories set in two different times – one in 1927, the other in 1977 – following two young kids, who are both deaf. Half of the film is presented dialogue-free like a silent movie with a lovely score by Carter Burwell, including most of the story set in 1927 which follows a girl named Rose who is played by an actual deaf actor named Millicent Simmonds. The film cuts back and forth between both storylines often, it’s not always that smooth, but it does keep pushing things along at a good pace. The other story involves a boy, played by Oakes Fegley (of Pete’s Dragon), desperate to meet his father who he believes is in New York. Eventually the two stories connect, and that payoff is totally worth it, with the emotions fully justified on both sides.
As odd as it sounds to describe Wonderstruck in text, the full experience of watching the film is wonderful. Haynes has a special sensibility that makes this film feel different than most. Some of the sets and locations are clearly fake, which is only a minor issue when the rest of it is so delightful. Without giving away too much, the film itself is really all about these two kids: what they’re going through (at home and in the city), and how hard they’re trying to find something to be happy about. They find that happiness at the famous American Museum of Natural History, which becomes an important part of both storylines. Perhaps this is obvious, but it’s all about being “struck by wonder”, and how that happens when we open our hearts and connect with others. And how that wonder changes us and can open our eyes. It’s inspiring in a simple way.
Wonderstruck is also as much about the magic of New York City as it is about the magic of connection. And anyone who has been to New York City knows how magical it can be there. One of the final scenes connects directly to the city and explains how important it has been to the lives of all of these people. It’s subtle, but it’s also a key part of the film, and Haynes does a great job making New York City feel alive and special and unforgettable. The storyline in the 1970s feels much more vibrant and believable than the one in the 1920s, which makes sense because it’s harder to recreate the city then. The biggest problems with the film involve the way it sometimes feels “tacky”, almost as if he doesn’t care that we know these sets are fake, because at the end of the day it’s about knowing these characters, not believing that they really recreated old New York.
Despite this feeling, when we finally get to the point where everything comes together I was unexpectedly hit by a wave of emotion. It all made sense and all that emotion was earned, I was suddenly welling up with tears. Maybe that was the moment where I remembered what it was like to be a kid, and why it’s so exciting to be “struck by wonder”. Of course, there’s the fact that this is a film about people who can’t hear still being amazed by a city that is full of a rowdy mix of sound. But maybe that’s also the point – being deaf (or even blind) isn’t something that should limit anyone from experiencing the grandeur this world has to offer. Nor should it prevent anyone from connecting with others, no matter who they may be. We all want to be happy.
Alex’s Cannes 2017 Rating: 8 out of 10
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