Whether or not one thinks that it’s fair to presuppose a film’s quality based upon the director’s previous work is up for debate. That being said it is difficult to go into a film like Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck entirely tabula rasa having seen his 2015 masterpiece Carol. A film such as Carol isn’t easily forgotten; it lingers, something so precisely made with such detailed, yet subtle breakdown of human thoughts and feelings. Wonderstruck is a different film altogether and one that even so soon after having watched it, feels entirely forgettable.
The story follows two deaf children from times 50 years apart, told in parallel or perhaps more in divergence, each pursuing the dream of uniting with a parent in New York City. Ben is the central character with frequent cuts to black and white to Rose’s story set in the 1920s. The cuts work, they successfully blend together two apparently separate stories of children dealing with deafness and parental issues, it’s cute but its obsession with cuteness feels like a failure to ever attempt to reach anything deeper. For example, Rose’s mother is a famous silent film star currently in New York acting in a play. While away Rose frequents the cinema to watch her mother’s films; others in the cinema are crying because of how emotional they found the film, Rose is crying because she misses her mother. On one occasion upon leaving the cinema there is a sign advertising ‘The First Ever Talkie’ or words to that effect with multiple men carrying large speakers into the cinema. This is never touched on again and it feels entirely like a missed opportunity. At this point it would have made so much sense for a young deaf girl to fall out of love with cinema when films moved from being silent to having talking in them. There was no Cinema Paradiso style falling in/out of love with cinema, a stunning, highly memorable potential plot point was abandoned as soon as it was introduced.
When Carol was happy to push moods, themes and ideas further and further Wonderstruck felt content in just leaving them, happy to be a pseudo intellectual kids film rather than attempt anything ambitious. Despite wanting to put Haynes’ other films aside, his directing simply lacks in Wonderstruck. Although no performances are bad, and in fact some are very good, particularly Millicent Simmonds’s acting debut as Rose, the majority feel sub-par with frequent poorly or strangely delivered lines more akin to soaps and teen dramas rather than feature films directed by masterful directors. More than anything the film is let down by its script based upon Brian Selznick’s book and screenplay. Selznick and Haynes speak of the screenplay with such adoration but the whole thing feels lacklustre and at times borderline silly from start to finish. In the after film discussion, they spoke of the mystery throughout the film, attempting to work out how the stories fit together, and yes, the stories do gel, leaving no detail out of the final conclusion but everything feels so coincidental and ultimately unsatisfactory as a result. A particular highlight of the film however is how the conclusion is depicted; with beautiful almost Anomalisa feel sculptures, it’s the only time that ‘cute’ feels successful in this film and it really is stunning. Not as an afterthought just mentioned at the end of the article but the film does well with its portrayal of deaf people as being exactly like everybody else, only unable to hear. The kids may be alienated from other characters within the film but they are right at the centre of the film, never mocked and ultimately highly loved and respected.
It’s not even that the film is a bona fide flop; it succeeds as what it is but what it is appears to be nothing more than a pretty around the edges flick aimed entirely at younger viewers with very little in the way of true soul.
Read James Clarke’s review of ‘Faithful’ at LFF 2017 HERE