True to his unique, uncommon muse, director Todd Haynes presents his latest film Wonderstruck as an intriguing challenge to dialogue-dependent narratives. This homage to silent films illustrates through its design what silence means for deaf people, as Haynes explained at Telluride where I first saw his film. Two stories run on parallel tracks, each ingeniously commenting on the other.
The chronologically earlier 1927 tale, second in appearance, belongs to deaf, twelve-year-old Rose, living in Hoboken, New Jersey. Though she doesn't speak, she communicates magnificently with music interpreting her moods and situations. The second story, set 50 years later in 1977, focuses on twelve-year-old Ben, in Minnesota, struck deaf by lightning. Rose and Ben, seeking ways to cope with their alienation, flee to New York seeking lost parents. Both feel inexplicably drawn to the Museum of Natural History where they are captivated by dioramas, in particular one with wolves that came to life in Ben's introductory, terrifying nightmare. Cross-cutting between stories, they eventually converge.
Based on Brian Selznick's novel and adapted by him, the minimal dialogue directs attention to the slightest nonverbal gesture, including the smallest facial movement. We can't rely, as we so often do, on dialogue to carry the film. Haynes demands a challenging shift in focus and rewards those who can open themselves to his silent-film aesthetic, more exaggerated for Rose's 1927 melodramatic acting style, more subdued for Ben whose anxiety is more internalized.
The visual look achieved by award-winning cinematographer Ed Lachman is equally important in making Wonderstruck work. Rose's story, shot in gorgeous black and white, accentuates the silent film ambience. Ben's sections have their own distinct style, several scenes unfolding on Manhattan's 1977 streets and evoking that time period.
In terms of the acting, as Haynes was pleased to note at Telluride with Simmonds in attendance, casting deaf, 12-year-old Millicent Simmonds as Rose brought truth and insight to the role. As Ben, Oakes Fegley, recently in Pete's Dragon, emotionally interprets his crisis. Julianne Moore unites the individuals and events in a remarkable scene. Wonderstruck is an atypical cinematic experience, a refreshingly engaging one. At a Landmark Theatre.