Cannes 2017 review: Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes)

You think you know the works of a director that you love inside out. It is not because you already know all that they are capable of, but because they have become such a master of familiar themes and tones. Then they surprise you with something you never saw coming, apparently out of their wheel house, and suddenly you find that there is even more to their voice, and could never imagine this latest work not to be ingrained in their canon. After decades as queer cinema’s lead auteur, Todd Haynes’s newest effort Wonderstruck is a dazzling “children’s” film that expands his œuvre, and contrary to what a first glance would suggest, is not so far off from what we have always loved about his cinema.

Based on Brian Selznick’s juvenile graphic novel of the same name, Wonderstruck cuts between two parallel stories about deaf children in different eras. In 1927, Rose (newcomer Millicent Simmonds) is born deaf, and has not had the resources or education to prepare her to live in a world where it is so important to be able to hear. Meanwhile in 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) grows up with the sense of hearing, until an accident strips him of it. As each child struggles to cope in a world designed for those who have access to all their senses, a greater theme emerges about the importance of identity. And both children have a passion for a significant adult figure: for Rose, it is silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Todd Haynes muse and Academy Award Winner Julianne Moore), on the cusp of the advent of the talking picture becoming another barrier in Rose’s world, after silent films have been a singular refuge to her; for Ben, it is the question of the identity of the father that he never knew, and both figures become instrumental to the trajectories of their journeys.

Wonderstruck is by no means an acting showcase (though it is a Todd Haynes film, so it naturally follows that everyone is good), but Millicent Simmonds emerges as a huge find. It is already quite a treat to see Rose, a young deaf girl, played by a deaf actor, but the significance of her casting proves to be essential to the format of her section of the film being in black and white, and silent. Hers is a face that would have been appropriately suited to silent film: the slightest change in her facial expression packs so much power, and one tear in her eye could make the whole world cry.

Every technical or directorial element evokes the purest of juvenile emotions with surprising maturity and sophistication, and Wonderstruck becomes a delightful playground for Todd Haynes. One of the greatest thrills of Wonderstruck is to see how the separate threads of these two worlds eventually intertwine. Todd Haynes is a real perfectionist, and his attention to detail is on display especially in successive scenes (notably in the American Museum of Natural History) where even using the same space, the visuals and mood are inextricably linked to each one’s era, but he is able to do it with a seamlessness that manages not to call attention to all his effort as he ties these two distinct stories together, while highlighting intrinsic similarities.

In a tale of people trying to discover why and how they might belong, Wonderstruck firmly asserts itself as a new adventure in Todd Haynes’s artistic journey, while still very much true to a thread that connects the majority of his works. Self-discovery and purpose are pillars to the queer sensibility, though relevant themes to everyone, and by opening his filmmaking to a more general audience, he may have appropriately made his most sweetly innocent, delicate, and inclusive film to date.