NYFF 55 Centerpiece: WONDERSTRUCK
Stephanie Archer takes an in-depth look at Wonderstruck, the official centerpiece selection of the 2017 New York Film Festival.
When I was planning out the films I had wanted to see at this year’s New York Film Festival, Wonderstruck was the film I was determined to see. As my final day would prove, my time at the NYFF was going to go out with a bang. Wonderstruck was the gem of all the films I had seen over the course of the festival. It was both heartwarming and heartbreaking, bringing true catharsis to a film, delivering talent that transcends conventional casting and sending messages of family, triumph, and that we are never truly lost.
Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and bestowed the honor of becoming the Centerpiece selection for this year’s New York Film Festival, Wonderstruck does not fail to deliver on the quality one expects to see showcased at these events. It delivers on every element of story, craftsmanship, and talent, with no element overshadowing each other, but instead weaving an intricate showcase that is sure to satisfy.
Wonderstruck follows the story of two young children, each within their own decade. Rose (Milliecent Simmonds) is a young high class child living in 1922. She is enamored with famous silent film actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), keeping cutouts from newspapers and magazines in a cherished scrapbook. Her mind is full of wonder as she uses the remaining scraps to construct towering buildings. Yet, where she can express creatively through visuals, she can not through sound.
Rose, deaf from birth, is left mute and unable to communicate, finding only seclusion in her silence. Her father does not understand her, and does not understand what she needs to succeed in a world of sound. Wanting to be out in the world, not hidden away at home, privately taught in a manner she does not understand from someone who had never experienced what she was going through, Rose sets off on her own to the awe inspiring island of New York City. It is here that she may find her own path to success and craft her own story.
Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a heartbroken child living in Minnesota in 1977, having recently lost his mother in a freak accident. While he has family to stay with, he wants nothing more than to have his mother back and learn about the father he has never known. One night while shifting through the remainder of his mother’s things, Ben finds a book with a message inside that could hold the key to finding his father. Yet, when a bolt of lightning electrocutes him through the telephone, he awakens to find himself permanently deaf and even more alone than before.
Sneaking out of the hospital late one night and purchasing a bus ticket, Ben makes the brave choice to travel to the island of New York City. On a mission to find his father while facing uncharted territory and challenges, Ben discovers more about himself and the world around him than he could have ever imagined.
This is a story of symmetry, a story of two young children whose paths parallel one another. Rose is obsessed with an actress who is more than she seems and Ben is obsessed with the story of a father he has never met – each obsession leads them on similar journeys and adventures.
Cinematic “Cabinet of Wonders”
Curators and museums are an integral part of the story in Wonderstruck, and frequently referenced and acknowledged within the film. The director of a film is like the the curator, deciding on which elements go into his cinematic cabinet of wonders – each piece from acting to lighting to editing are carefully chosen to be displayed. Todd Haynes is a stellar embodiment of a cinematic curator.
While far from a new storytelling technique, Haynes effectively used color, or the absence of, to help differentiate the timelines between the two children. For Rose and the 1922 setting, everything was filmed in black and white, while Ben and 1977 were in color. Music was also used to help differentiate the timelines, each track relatable and credible to the time period. Yet, there were even more effective and various ways Haynes chose to differentiate between the two.
Silent film movies were what everyone went to the theater to see, a small orchestra or piano player bringing audio to the room. In Rose’s timeline, she watches a silent film, the exaggerated movements and dramatic expressions brought to life by Julianne Moore. In Rose’s real life, everything mimics a silent film, exaggerated movements of those around her and dramatic expressions to get her to understand – Rose is living a silent film movie. Ben, however, wasn’t always deaf, his 1977 timeline full of color going in and out of sound contradicting the life of Rose in 1922.
The state of New York was also used to differentiate timelines. In 1922, New York is an awe-inspiring island where dreams come true and buildings have just begun to reach for the stars. In 1977, however, New York is run down, littered, and full of crime.
The adaptation and script writing by Brian Selznick was brilliant. His layout and breakdown of this symmetrical story gave way to coherent and comprehensive transitions between scenes and people. There are elements of each child’s story that are both individual and parallel, each of these elements carefully handled and told – culminating into a wholesome ending that will satisfy viewers alike.
Acting was another element perfectly curated, each individual’s talent carefully selected to bring each character to life. Julianne Moore is given the opportunity to display a wide range in her acting – and she does not fail to deliver. To reveal all that she does is to take away from the wonder of the film, but to ignore would be an otiosity. Moore brings such life to her character, even without a single word spoken. She is the silent film actress of our time, transcending words and emotions.
Wonderstruck was not without its cast surprises. Michelle Williams brought a sweet, off standish portrayal to Ben’s mother Elaine. While her performance was short, there was a relatability to her character that would prove to be useful in fueling Ben’s drive and motive. The biggest surprise for me was the appearance of Corey Smith Michael. While in retrospect, he was perfect for the role, it was hard to see him as anyone other than The Riddler from Gotham (my favorite character from this rendition of the Batman legacy BTW).
The standouts in Wonderstruck, however, were not so much the seasoned actors, but instead the children. While not exactly new to the stage, Oakes Fegley (Pete’s Dragon) and Jaden Michael (The Get Down) were both phenomenal. Jaden Michael’s interpretation of Jamie is both heartwarming and heartbreaking as a young child whose life is the objects in the museum rather than the living outside. Oakes Fegley’s Ben was dynamic and engaging, humorous and wholesome. Both these children will be ones to watch.
The real star of Wonderstruck was Millicent Simmonds in her debut film. She was captivating and endearing. There was a sense of readiness that was brought to the role, a feeling of understanding of one’s own character. It seemed that she was able to bring a part of herself to the role. She brought such a strength to her character without uttering one word. While many will attribute this to her being deaf in real life, Simmonds has a real talent that goes beyond her disability.
Cabinet of Wonders
As previously mentioned, the topic of curators and cabinets of collections was a common reference throughout the film. Curators are individuals at a museum who decide what will be showcased for its attendees. Before the use of museums, however, people would be their own curators, collecting items of wealth, antiquity, and wonder, placing these items in display cabinets within their homes.
One of the messages I felt Wonderstruck was trying to convey is that we are all the curators of our lives. Our collections are comprised of life experiences, people and mementos from within our life. We collect, categorize and display stories and objects that have meaning and that we feel will bring meaning or reliability to others.
Yet, like a wise curator, there are things that we keep hidden, deciding that these are not the memories or objects we want on display. In Wonderstruck, Rose has her scrapbook and Ben’s mom Elaine (Michelle Williams) had her memories of his father.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at stars”
This was my favorite quote of the entire film. It is inspirational and timely. While everyone is glass half empty, some see it as half full. While some can only see ahead to a life planned out, others can see the impossible, looking up to where they could go instead of where they will probably go. It is how we view life that can determine our success and how far we go. If we are in the gutter thinking only of how things are, that is how they stay. Yet, if we look to the stars and what could be, we push ourselves to reach for something more, even the seemingly impossible. I found this quote to be further timely, as it reflects a new wave of casting throughout Hollywood.
For years, time and time again, actors have been casted to portray individuals with special needs. Now, while I am not opposed as there are various situations that may need to warrant this, why shouldn’t those with disabilities be casted – especially if they have the disability that is about to be portrayed? Why do we continually look ahead on a decided path, instead of looking up to the stars to see the greater potential and the greater possibility?
I recent months, I have begun to notice a change. Last year, Speechless premiered on ABC. It depicted a family whose everyday functions and living arrangements were decided upon by the matriarch whose sole mission was to create equality for her son with cerebral palsy. Micah Fowler, who suffers from cerebral palsy in real life, was casted for the role of the son. In The Rider, Brady Blackburn visits his friend Lane at a home – Lane was severely injured by a horse in a rodeo accident some years earlier. Instead of hiring someone to portray Lane, the real life man Lane Scott was casted to play himself.
In Wonderstruck, Milliecent Simmonds is not just acting as a girl who has been deaf her whole life, she herself is deaf. This allowed Simmonds to bring a part of herself to the role – to give a piece of herself to her artwork. There are small intricate facial expressions and behaviors that carry through into her performance – elements that may not have been injected into the role otherwise.
While I understand that this is nothing new, it is important to note that increasing behavior of casting individuals with disabilities instead of paying someone to act like it. Look to the stars to see the vast array of talent, especially in those you might have never considered before.
All Good Things Must Come to An End
And like that, my time at the New York Film Festival has come to an end. From foreign films to American made treasures, this has been a festival for the books. Thank you for following my journey and until next year!
Have you seen Wonderstruck? Did you see any other films at this year’s New York Film Festival? Tell us in the comments below!
Wonderstruck is set to be released in the United States on October 20, 2017.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.