When you go into a Todd Haynes film, you know you’re going to get something different. Not only is he a pioneer in queer cinema, focusing on stories involving LGBT people, but his films also have a distinctive look that make them unmistakable.
Though his new film, Wonderstruck, does not explicitly deal with any LGBT themes, it's as much about otherness as anything he’s ever done. The story centers on two children: Ben (Oakes Fegley), who lives in Gun Flint, Minnesota in 1977, and Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927. Through different circumstances, both are deaf, and the eras in which they live and how each came to be deaf inform the way the world interacts with them.
For different reasons, each makes their way to New York City to track down people important to them. Their respective quests initially are mysterious, with their end goals unclear. But as each finds out more and more, the mysteries start to unfold, with the American Museum of Natural History playing a key role in each story.
Haynes and writer Brian Selznick, who adapted his own bestselling children’s book, have fun with the different time periods to tell the story in unique ways, especially Rose’s sections. Rose’s favorite actress is Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a famous silent film actress. As Rose is deaf, her sections play out like a silent film. However, Haynes makes the audience rely on their own lip reading and body language interpretations, providing only a few written communications.
Ben’s sections contain sound, but his deafness is treated as if the actor and, by extension, the audience is actually deaf. Communication is never easy, yet somehow the story is never difficult to follow — a credit to both Haynes’ filmmaking style and the skills of the various actors.
It’s clear that the two sections will connect at some point, but the how and why play out like a great mystery. Unlike crime mysteries, though, the story drops in clues that are full of heartfelt emotion, culminating with a reveal that earns all of its tears and smiles.
The film hinges on the performances of the two kids, and neither disappoints. Fegley, who was great in Pete’s Dragon and other roles, is definitely going places, with his photogenic face and earnest personality. Simmonds, a novice who was cast because she’s actually deaf, does just as well in her section.
It’s odd to think that the man who made Safe and Carol would be equally adept at making a kid-friendly movie, but Haynes does just that without sacrificing his own aesthetic. Wonderstruck will make you wonder what else he’s capable of.
Wonderstruck is now playing at Angelika Film Center in Dallas and Plano.