Small Wonder

Director Todd Haynes explores the power of silence, the wonder of connection

Director Todd Haynes has worked in a variety of cinematic genres and with diverse subject matter over his esteemed indie career. His work includes Superstar, a critique of celebrity culture; Safe, a drama warning of the toxicity of modern American life; Far From Heaven, a technicolor homage to 1950s sexual melodramas; I’m Not There, an unconventional and poetic biography of Bob Dylan; and most recently, Carol, the multi-Oscar-nominated drama about a forbidden lesbian love affair.

There is, however, a thematic through-line in Haynes’ films: a deep sensitivity for those estranged, for whatever reason, from conventional society. In his latest feature, the delicate and lovely Wonderstruck, Haynes again explores what life is like for those out of step with the norm: in this case, two deaf children on their own in New York in two seemingly unrelated stories set 50 years apart.

In 1927, Rose, a child isolated by her deafness from birth, runs away from her suburban home in pursuit of a silent film star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), whom she idolizes. Played by newcomer Millicent Simmonds (who is herself deaf) with a mesmerizing screen presence, Rose is looking for a place where she belongs in a society that marginalizes and patronizes the disabled.

Fifty year later, in 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a lonely Minnesota boy grieving over the recent death of his mother and determined to find the far-away father he has never known. Finding a clue to his dad’s identity in an old book leads him on a quest to New York City, but not before Ben is also struck deaf in a freak lightning accident.

The two mysteries are told in an interspersed fashion—1927 in luminous black and white cinematography and nearly silent, 1977 in lurid pop colors and a noisy and era-appropriate rock soundtrack. And both stories reflect the innocence and resilience of the two young characters at their center.

To reveal more of the plot and the two stories’ connection would be a disservice to Haynes’ and screenwriter Brian Selznick’s thoughtfully constructed gem of a film. Incidentally, Selznick wrote the book on which Wonderstruck is based, and he also wrote the novel that inspired Martin Scorsese’s recent Hugo. The almost magical delicacy of Wonderstruck is given further resonance by cinematographer Edward Lachman’s deft evocation in the two eras and in Carter Burwell’s enchanting film score (which is especially effective in Rose’s story).

Both Simmonds as Rose and Fegley as Ben are natural magnets in front of the camera. Their straightforward, earnest performances carry the film. But, credit also must go to solid supporting work from Jaden Michael as Ben’s friend Jamie; Michelle Williams in a brief but crucial role as Ben’s mother; and Moore, who plays two characters in the movie, one in each era.

Some overly long third-act exposition aside, Wonderstruck is a captivating story about two isolated children who manage to find comfort and connection.

Also appearing at your nearby multiplex in November: Thor: Ragnarok, the latest movie exploration of the Marvel universe (11/3); Wonder, a domestic drama starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as parents of a unique child (11/17); and Coco, a Pixar story featuring an all-Latino voice cast (11/22).