by Ryan Uytdewilligen
Even if you don’t see Wonderstruck, you have to admit the film’s trailer alone just might be the most jarring piece of cinema we’ve seen all year.
With a blend of colour and black and white, we are immediately introduced to a boy searching for his father, then ZAP! A shaky blur that can only be explained as an electric shock leaves the boy deaf. What follows is the most haunting cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity—a choir of kids lead the way until Bowie himself takes over to lift the hairs on the back of our necks.
A lot of the accompanying images in the trailer cannot be explained but they are beautiful and certainly watchable as the years 1927 and 1977 blur together into some wild fantasy world. This is the latest film from acclaimed auteur director Todd Haynes and this year’s closing film at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Todd Haynes dabbled around the indie world for much of the eighties and nineties, winning subtle acclaim with films like Poison (1991) and Safe (1995). What really made Haynes a hit with audiences was his 1998 Ziggy Stardust inspired rock film Velvet Goldmine staring Christian Bale and Ewan McGregor.
His films Far From Heaven (2002) and the recent hit Carol (2015) both examined the complex lives of women in the 1950’s while his most renowned work, I’m Not There (2007), explored the life of Bob Dylan using seven different actors to capture different aspects of the folk singer’s life.
A few staples you’d find in his movies include period settings, musician lifestyles, and a frequent collaboration with Oscar winning actress Julianne Moore. He is also an outspoken gay filmmaker who has become synonymous with New Queer Cinema, thanks to his vast use of sexual exploration as a theme.
With all of Haynes’ previous motifs and filmography, it’s curious that his new film is a family film adapted from Brian Selznick’s novel. The movie looks unlike anything we’ve seen from the director before, though the protagonists and their motivations rising from missing family and hidden pasts do give off a familiar aura.
That’s because the author of the original Wonderstruck novel also wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was adapted into the Martin Scorsese film Hugo (2011). Haynes has said he loved the book and film adaptation because of his love of film history and the visual representations of New York.
Taking place in two different time periods, Wonderstruck follows the quests of two deaf runaway children; one searching for his father and the other for her idol.
The film dives deep into the periods it explores—the 1970’s are gloriously showcased with proper posters, music, and a gritty representation of NYC at the time. Through this landscape, Ben (the young protagonist who has lost his mother) gains a clue to who his father is—a mysterious book with an address.
The other thread of the story begins when the swinging beats of the 20’s jazz era are alive and well. Young Rose arrives in NYC to find her favorite silent screen idol. Brilliantly mimicking classic silent cinema right down to the sped up movements, the film gives us a glimpse of the city in a very different (almost unbelievable) time. It’s obviously a love letter to the infamous city and its varied history of art, music, and of course, film.
Wonderstruck is certainly a playground for Haynes as he brilliantly captures the cinematic styles of both settings. The silent film portions are vivid and real—perhaps a perfect introduction to those who can’t imagine a world with colour or conversation.
Haynes’ film is also set apart by a casting decision that has rarely been heard of, particularly in such a leading role. To play young Rose, Haynes found Millicent Simmonds, a young actress who is deaf. She was chosen to convey a more physical performance while linking heavily to the theme, character, and relationship between silent films and the loss of hearing. A relative unknown, this role is expected to make waves for her and actors in the deaf community.
Visually, Wonderstruck is compelling thanks to the different decades cinematographer Edward Lachman brings back to life. The story is wholeheartedly original and the fact it’s suitable for the whole family is refreshing. The performances are memorable, particularly that of Haynes’ regular Julianne Moore as a classical Hollywood star.
VIFF showcases a wide variety of films and this one celebrates not only the history of filmmaking, but of humanity and the positive spirit. It’s escapism but achieves what it’s meant to do—entertain, inform, and incite waves of emotion.
Celebrate the end of another successful VIFF festival by attending the closing gala; the film plays twice on October 13th at 7:30 at The Centre and 9:15 at the Vancouver Playhouse. Wonderstruck will be released theatrically worldwide on October 20th.