It’s never the right time.
What do a deaf (from birth) girl in 1920s New Jersey and hearing-impaired (due to a recent accident) boy in 1970s Minnesota have in common besides their struggle to communicate? We’ll just have to wait until author/screenwriter Brian Selznick and director Todd Haynes are ready to let us know. In the meantime we’re made to follow their parallel (albeit five decades apart) paths towards a sense of freedom the adults in their lives simply cannot comprehend. They yearn for more than existing in a world that feels like a prison either physically or emotionally. They crave the love they deserve and sadly aren’t receiving in their current predicaments. Their handicap envelops us in Carter Burwell‘s intuitive score as they throw caution to the wind and explore without sound.
The Caldecott Medal Winner (for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which itself was adapted to film by Martin Scorsese) begins Wonderstruck with young Ben (Oakes Fegley). At this point the boy still has his hearing and sadly must use it to listen to his cousin’s bullying now that he lives with his aunt and uncle. Ben is drowning in sorrow and loneliness after his mother’s (Michelle Williams‘ Elaine) death, the distress manifesting as nightmares with wolves chasing him through a forest. His mother never told him who his father was and now she’ll never get the chance to do so. But as he rummages through her old things, a bookmark is discovered with a potential clue about his father’s identity. An answer may exist in New York City.
From here Selznick switches to young Rose (Millicent Simmonds), her deafness providing the opportunity to use illustration as a contrast to the text used with Ben. She’s desperate to escape the domineering father (James Urbaniak) who seems putout that he must raise someone who cannot hear him scream. The only thing she has to stay sane is a creative mind that allows her to build three-dimensional urban landscapes with newspaper clippings and a dream of meeting legendary silent actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). It’s the latter’s latest performance being live onstage that leads Rose towards the Big Apple as well. If nothing else she may be able to find her brother (Cory Michael Smith‘s Walter) and a reprieve from their father’s frustrations. So she—like Ben—runs away.
It’s a brilliant start to a children’s story of adventure and the unknown. Unfortunately for some viewers of this cinematic adaptation, however, its greatest attribute proves also its largest hurdle. I’m talking about Haynes as its steward, an artist who’s never shied from a challenge or an opportunity to create something wholly unique. (He delivered unauthorized biopics of Karen Carpenter and Bob Dylan with Barbie dolls and six different actors playing versions of his subject respectively after all). So as Selznick separates his book between text and image depending on whether his focus lands upon Ben or Rose, Haynes follows suit. The result is a crosscutting narrative that spans time and aesthetic. Ben receives color and a muffled voice track while Rose is silent in black and white.
This can obviously prove annoying to young audience members unused to sitting in a theater without being able to hear the actors speaking. I’d estimate that a good hour-plus in the middle of the film (from Ben losing his hearing until his fateful search bears fruit) is devoid of necessary dialogue. Ben’s half does eventually allow him to speak fine while those he interacts with (mostly a new friend in Jaden Michael‘s Jamie) must write on a pad, but Rose’s uses silent-era techniques to embellish expressions and punctuate actions. The latter sees Burwell writing certain instruments as though voices or effects, their impeccably timed delivery ensuring viewers know exactly where to place their attention. It’s a thoroughly delightful experience, especially when juxtaposed against the 1970s colors and sounds.
Eventually both journeys lead them to the Museum of Natural History so that we can see one locale through two very different lenses. It’s the same for New York City too: the high-contrast black and white augmenting the posh uniformity of 1920s civility and the bright colors of a graffiti-covered, Vietnam War-era setting showing the diversity and electricity far-removed from flapper chic. What never changes, however, is the distinct way in which these two characters experience it. Ben and Rose may throw themselves in the deep-end of big city chaos at disparate moments, but their fear, excitement, and isolation proves identical. They are wandering through a place of sensory overload with only four senses at their disposal. They’ll each need courage, problem-solving skills, and some luck to prevail.
Both Fegley and Simmonds are up to the task, their emotions running high whenever confronted with a roadblock or possible end to their searches. The former’s Ben is angsty yet understanding, his desire to get what he wants never quite preventing him from seeing the motives and empathy of those standing in his way. The latter’s Rose is forever in awe of what she sees, the beauty of new discoveries opening her to a world her adolescence had yet only experienced on the big screen. Credit Haynes for making the effort to find a deaf actress to take on this role because there’s definitely a level of authenticity to her startles and wonder that a hearing performer couldn’t match. We see everything through her eyes as though the first time.
Where their dueling trajectories go is hardly shocking, but that inevitable convergence is impeccably orchestrated nonetheless. Act Three may also be very talky in order to bring them together, but it only feels unnecessarily so because we had been without such lengthy narration long enough that our minds need readjustment. Ultimately we discover that silence isn’t the absence of clarity, just sound. The film forces us to tap into communicative avenues we often neglect, freeing our minds from the cacophony of excess. In the end Wonderstruck is a tale of discovering independence and overcoming adversity to excel despite any shortcomings others are often too quick to point out. It’s about the love of family and how we sometimes use secrets to protect those we cherish most.
 Julianne Moore and Oakes Fegley in WONDERSTRUCK Photo credit: Mary Cybulski Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
 Millicent Simmonds in WONDERSTRUCK Photo credit: Myles Aronowitz Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
 Michelle Williams and Oakes Fegley in WONDERSTRUCK Photo credit: Mary Cybulski Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions