Wonderstruck is a film about children. It's a film about being different in a world that doesn't quite understand you. It's about silent cinema and '70s cinema. It's about deafness and how it changes your world. All in all, it's a pretty queer film.
In adapting Brian Selznick's novel of the same name, director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I'm Not There) admits the work "felt kind of loaded with and fueled by a love of film. That's true of Hugo too." Much like Hugo, Selznick's novel shifts between "silent" art and text, depicting two time periods. Haynes splits his film similarly, with the deafness of the characters being important contextually and formally.
"It has this sensitive story about deafness, and there's something built into the formal structure that parallels these two stories 50 years apart," he explains. "It also tells the story of how deaf culture in the United States changed its status and regard, and how it was taught, and how deaf communities were respected and asked to take part in the larger human culture.
"This story sharpens how the cinematic language is used. It's not a film that's dialogue-driven because of that theme, and that allows all the nonverbal elements of cinema, which are the most thrilling to me, to really step up and make the film work as a whole."
And Wonderstruck never isolates its deaf protagonists, Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Rose (Millicent Simmonds). Haynes says he felt a "conscious attraction toward the material" because of this content. "I think there's these really implicit links between the limited agency of deaf people to that of children. Kids understand being relegated to a less empowered part of society and have to contend with those limits of power and agency all the time. So alternate perceptions of the world are things they get."
The director remembers being "fascinated, touched, and altered" by Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker. "There's that particular transition in Helen Keller's story, early in her life, which is really an acquisition of language and what that meant. It's almost a savage step from being unsocialized to being socialized.
"And in that movie, there's an almost beautiful, wild resistance against it that is what prolongs the course of the story until she finally, through a cathartic moment, makes the connection between signifier/signified and all of a sudden this access to culture occurs. But I love that there's resistance to it and that's something that children feel: There's a desire to move forward and a time to resist."
This isn't the first time Haynes has focused on children in his narratives, with Dottie Got Spanked feeling particularly reminiscent of Wonderstruck in its formal flourishes and thematic content. "I hadn't seen it in a while, but I had a retrospective in Vienna and realized they're both also about creative practice," he admits.
In Wonderstruck, Rose has a passion for model-making, and Ben has a distinct interest in museums. Dottie Got Spanked's Steven is attracted to drawing all sorts of scenarios of his desires.
"It's a coping mechanism. This child in Dottie kind of masters his existence and masters desires that are sometimes not acceptable by society or marked as transgressive. It's all about how to manage that, and he buries the drawing, but burying that is very careful and he's taking care of what he has produced and what that desire might mean for a later date.
"Ben's interest in the Natural History Museum, and the things that already were desires and curiosities on his part, land him face-on with his repressed terror of a wolf diorama that embodies the story he's seeking about his father but that he's not ready to receive yet. But it's about dealing with death and defining the loss in his life, and it's embodied in this image that has also haunted him and that he's drawn as a child."
This creative outlet also extends to the process of the preservation of history. "They have creative practices, and they're learning languages and learning how to fill the blanks of their own stories," Haynes explains. "Like the Museum of Natural History, which some people might regard as objective science, we have to realize that all of these official stories are narratives, are fictions, that are constructed."
His film Velvet Goldmine contains the quote "Histories, like ancient ruins, are the fictions of empires." Haynes says, "It's up to the people left out of the official history to write their own, knowing that all history is subjective and fictive. That's a liberation, not a limitation, in my mind. You have to not overvalue its veracity and objectivity because then you fall into the trap of what official histories have tried to do."
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And the importance and power of being an outsider, or a spectator, is important to Haynes as a filmmaker. "Velvet Goldmine is this story of these legends and these unknown truths of these figures of pop culture and their potential romances, but it's all filtered through the perspective of a fan," he says. "It's really a fan's dream of what that cultural moment was about. It's a cultural moment characterized by an invitation to bring the fan into the process and let the fan dress up in kind and participate in the radical destabilization of sexuality and identity that is going on, just as we do the same.
"Closeups are intensely important in these films because they're all about looking," he explains, noting it is true for his queer romance Carol too. "The act of looking and what you're looking at are the kind of conducting languages in both Wonderstruck and Carol — in Carol because it's the definitive parameter of the love story: the lover looking at the loved one.
"In Wonderstruck, it's because they don't hear, so they're looking, and their perception is really what carries them through their journeys and the way they understand where they're going. And these actors conduct those looks with such thoughtfulness that they invite you into being completely in the matrix of how it feels to be looking at what they're looking at."
Wonderstruck. Now playing at AMC Aventura 24, Cinépolis Coconut Grove, Regal South Beach Stadium 18, AMC Sunset Place 24, and the Classic Gateway Theatre.