The great, essential New York Film Festival continues to top itself.I can’t stop talking about all the wonderful films I saw there this season.
It was an incredible year that it was having. now reveals their Centerpiece Film to be one of the best of the year, and the one film to emerge that may just end up not only the most beloved but the most acclaimed. Haynes has had an amazing career to date with his legendary team of producer Christine Vachon and cinematographer Ed Lachman. His films are never quite embraced as they should be by the mainstream. Haynes is Out and Gay and so is Vachon, but here in “Wondersruck” the brilliant Centerpiece film of this amazing festival, they have eschewed gay themes entirely and turned to a serious subject that you would never think their twinkling talents would ever touch – deafness.
There has never been a film that has addressed this terrible affliction head on, and with such grace and style and heart and heart-break. “The Miracle Worker” comes to mind as the only film to really face this disease. But Helen Keller was both blind as well as deaf and both Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft as her soul saving teacher both got Oscars. “Wonderstruck” should be showered with awards in every category that it is eligible for. Julianne Moore may be heading towards her second Oscar and her sixth(or is it seventh?) nomination for sure in a duel role that is head-spinning as well as heart-breaking. Her range is tested and she proves more than equal to the daunting task. She is Haynes’ muse, and is more than up to the double challenges these two roles face her with. She is for sure one of our greatest actress. Always amazing, in “Wonderstuck” she astounded me.
Also unforgettable is the wan, fey, first time performer, deaf actress Millicent Simmonds(pictured above). She plays the pivotal role of the non-hearing Rose, who wants to break out of her restrictive home in Hoboken, in the silent film black and white half of Haynes’ stunning cinematic coup du cinema. Just like Soirse Ronan’s “Lady Bird,” she wants to spread her wings and fly as Lady Bird does, to New York City. She is first seen as simply a lost little girl, wandering the streets of 1920s New York all by herself.
She keeps grasping articles and ads about a glamourous stage actress, Lillian Mayhew, who turns out to be her mother. So her seemingly pointless mission leads her to a theater and to Mom, here played by an almost unrecognizable Julianne Moore in the first of her two wildly divergent roles. To reveal her second would be to spoil the movie. So don’t let anyone tell you anything about it.
Her vain diva of a mother is a parent who wants nothing to do with her deaf child. She’s ashamed that her child is deaf. “Wonderstruck” is the name of a book about museums that brings both halves of this bifurcated film together. The other half is set 50 years later in 1977 New York (and in color, with sound) and involves another runaway child, this time a boy, Oakes Fegley. His mother, the only parent he’s ever known (played beautifully in a cameo appearance by Michelle Williams) is killed at “Wonderstruck”s outset in a car crash. Ben has nightmares about wolves. And flees his Gunflint, Minnesota home when lightning strikes him deaf.
So we have two deaf 12 year-old children running from what they see as unbearable situations, to New York City, to find a new home, one that will hopefully heal them, simultaneously, one in black and white and silent in the ’20s, to one contemporary and in color with sound. This seemingly impossible to connect or reconcile story, Haynes (and cinematographer Lachman) manage to pull off in a grand manner. Culminating with both twelve year olds finding their way to the Museum of Natural History. I will reveal no more.
The sound work by a huge team under the super vision of Drew Kunin is simply astounding. Silence and foley affects and sound mixing and sound editing have never played such an integral part in a feature film. But here the sound department just shines in creating a world where there is no sound whatsoever. The deaf lead a very hard life and “Wonderstuck” reveals its’ woes and complex challenges quite beautifully with a style and grace that is unparalleled.
The dizzying editing between past and present and black and white and silent and color and sound is by the wizardly of Affonso Gonclaves. The impeccable period and modern costumes are by the great Sandy Powell and the production design is by Mark Friedberg.
“Wonderstruck” is based on Brian Selznick’s book, from which he also wrote the moving screenplay.
I hope “Wonderstruck” isn’t too sentimental for our jaded times, but audiences and families can bring their children to this and enjoy it and be educated by it. The Museum of Natural History is really a character in this film and its’ great dioramas of wildlife are shown to full and wonderful effect. “Wonderstruck” is wonderful, that’s all there is to it.