Friday, October 19, 2018

Wondering about the Sounds of Silence in “Wonderstruck”

I must say: I wasn’t entirely struck by Wonderstruck. I’ve admired a lot of the work of director Todd Haynes, whose sensitivity and indie sensibilities appeal to me greatly.  And I knew the screenplay was written by Brian Selznick, adapting his own quirky juvenile novel as he had done for the spectacular Hugo. Add in a performance by Haynes favorite Julianne Moore, as well as a suitably eclectic score by the talented Carter Burwell, and you would seem to have something pretty special indeed.   

Wonderstruck is certainly unique in its conception. It tells what seem to be two separate stories from two separate eras. One, set in 1977, involves a twelve-year-old Minnesota boy, grieving the loss of his mother and his hearing, who travels to New York City in search of the father he’s never known. The other, taking place fifty years earlier, features a young deaf girl who runs away from her affluent Hoboken home to seek out a glamorous Hollywood star about to open on Broadway.

The stories collide—in their fashion—at the New York Museum of Natural History, where an historic exhibit of old curiosity cabinets (the forerunners of today’s museums) creates some creative linkage between them. But it’s not until the film’s final moments that we understand the full connection between the two young lives being explored. Haynes shot the 1977 scenes in color and the 1927 scenes in classic black-&-white, moving gracefully between the two. So much to admire, but I admit I for one often got restless, especially where the young boy’s tale of woe was concerned.

 But that 1927 storyline had me riveted. Partly that was thanks to the dynamic, though non-speaking, performance of Millicent Simmonds, appearing in her first film. Simmonds, who has been deaf since infancy, has an open, appealing face that beautifully captures the emotions of her character. One particularly poignant moment: leaving a movie theatre where she has just thrilled to the dramatic escapades of silent star Lillian Mayhew, she pauses wistfully beneath the marquee which proclaims that the theatre will soon be closed for the installation of a sound system, so that future audiences can enjoy talkies.  It’s a moment that instantly captures the isolation of a deaf girl who has never been exposed to American Sign Language. Kudos to director Haynes for insisting that an actual deaf child play this role.

The first time I paid attention to the plight of the deaf was watching the stage version of Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God. In 1986 the play became a movie, and its hearing-impaired star, Marlee Matlin, ultimately won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as an angry young deaf woman who refuses to attempt verbal speech. This was her first film, but the Oscar wasn’t granted to her solely out of sympathy for her affliction. I’m happy to report that she’s had a lot of film and television roles since, mostly playing women who just happen to be deaf but also enjoy many other distinctive character traits.

Here’s hoping the incandescent young Millicent Simmonds will have an equally fulfilling career trajectory. This year she was featured as the hearing-impaired daughter who is central to John Krasinksi’s effective thriller, A Quiet Place, and other roles are on tap. A kid from small-town Utah who was dazzled by her first visit to Manhattan, Millie is loving the excitement. So far she’s exuberant and fearless about the new direction her life is taking: “I want to be an actor to show deaf people can do it. You're not too young to dream big!”

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