“The two leads of Wonderstruck are both deaf, one of whom is portrayed wonderfully by deaf talent Millicent Simmonds.”
Title: Wonderstruck (2017)
Director: Todd Haynes 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈
Writer: Original book and screenplay by Brian Selznick 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Over two decades ago, glam rock biopic Velvet Goldmine was released and took over my life. I listened to its stunning soundtrack on repeat and obsessed over its postmodern scene-splicing. Todd Haynes was my hero for directing that beautiful space creature, and I looked forward to catching his latest work.
Luckily, Haynes’ mastery over music and clever editing is as successful as ever in Wonderstruck, and his ability to weave multiple stories into a single, wondrous tale remains intact. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end.
While Wonderstruck does achieve moments of delight and discovery, it never manages to pull itself out of the weeds. The film feels overly focused on getting from point A to point B, its rapturous attention to detail making for a visually compelling product frame-to-frame, but one that would have benefited from taking a step back to lead not just from the eyes and ears, but from the gut.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women are integral to Wonderstruck. The film follows the character of Rose, a deaf girl played by Millicent Simmonds in the 1920s (later played by Julianne Moore in the film’s 1977 setting.) Rose fills much of the camera and her storyline spearheads about a third of the film, garnering this a strong score for Gender.
The support character of Elaine (Michelle Williams) also plays a pivotal role, though it falls into the trope of using the death of a woman to start a male narrative. In this case, Elaine’s death spurs her son, Ben (Oakes Fegley), to search for his absent father.
The only reason to ding this score is the fact that the lead character and plot driver remains male, while the support cast skews male as well—Rose’s brother and father and Ben’s friend Jamie (Jaden Michael) and cousin all have multiple scenes and speaking roles, collectively taking up more room than Rose and female support characters do.
While the two leads are both white, surrounded by white family members and nearly all white background characters in its 1927 flashbacks, Wonderstruck does a fantastic job of recognizing the fact that people of color have been around for decades and made up a significant portion of New York City’s residents in 1977. According to the 1980 Census, less than half of Manhattan’s population was white and we see that reality reflected onscreen as Ben steps out of Port Authority bus terminal only to be surrounded by diverse crowds of Hispanic, black, and white city-slickers. (In 1980, 24% of the Manhattan population was Hispanic and 22% were black.)
Not only does Haynes employ diverse actors in the background, a large role is devoted to Jamie, played by Jaden Michael who is of Dominican descent. Cultural details such as hearing Jamie speak to his father in Spanglish—a mix of English and Spanish—grounds the character in subtle but powerful ways. Because of these nuances, the world of Wonderstruck feels rich and lived in.
Considering the hefty LGBTQ street cred of gay auteur Todd Haynes, whose previous queer films include Carol and the aforementioned Velvet Goldmine, it’s hard not to squint a little at the friendship between Ben and Jamie, especially on the part of Jamie whose instant enthrallment of Ben could perceivably go beyond curiosity at his deafness and into something a little more coming-of-age. Still, nothing is shown outright, so what we get in Wonderstruck is a sweet, platonic friendship between two preteen boys.
Bonus for Disability: +0.50
The two leads of Wonderstruck are both deaf, one of whom is portrayed wonderfully by deaf talent Millicent Simmonds in the role of Rose. When I left the theater, I felt great about how deafness was worked into the film, as it informed both the soundtrack—none of the 1920s scenes have speaking lines, only instrumental scores to help portray emotion—as well as its visual sensibility, as Haynes gives us intimate close-ups of hands, whether turning phone dials or running across raised, engraved museum plaques.
However, this would hardly be a complete review if I didn’t check in with how the deaf community feels about Wonderstruck. While I couldn’t locate a full review—if you know of one, please send it my way!—Twitter unearthed complaints from multiple deaf individuals who balk at having a hearing actor in a deaf and signing role. Actress and advocate @sandy21mae writes:
I agree with her reservations but in sum total, I still consider Wonderstruck a step forward due to the lead role of Simmonds and background opportunities given to deaf actors in the black-and-white 1920s scenes. Paving the way for deaf talent starts with work opportunities, so as long as audiences are voicing their consternations then I like to think we’ll eventually see change onscreen.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.25/5
Wonderstruck tries to be inclusive and the effort pays off on that front. Women have strong representation and racial demographics feel true to 1920s and 1970s New York City.
That being said, we keep hitting a familiar snag in the telling of marginalized stories. It’s weird to think of a man unironically playing a female onstage, and it’s offensive to imagine a white actor in blackface, yet these things were once the norm. Yellowface continues to this day—side-eying Emma Stone as Alison Ng in Aloha—and only because of audience backlash are we starting to see change.
Meanwhile, cisgender men are still being lauded for playing transgender women. Actors without autism are regularly pretending to have ASD. And—as in Wonderstruck—deaf and signing roles are still going to hearing people.
It’s going to take some time for Hollywood to cotton on to the fact that we aren’t annoyed because actors are acting. We’re annoyed because Hollywood and those in power are mining the experiences of marginalized groups, then barring them from entry when it comes time to sharing job opportunities and wealth.
In this larger context, like so many films that have come before it, Wonderstruck has its heart in the right place. And gets it right, for the most part. It’s a step forward, especially in establishing Millicent Simmonds as One To Watch, but this is going to be an ongoing discussion whether for deaf, transgender, disabled, Asian, or native American actors who continue to be denied screen time.