(Release Info London schedule; April 3rd, 2018, BFI Southbank, 18:10)
Based on Brian Selznick’s critically acclaimed novel Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Rose (Millicent Simmonds) are children from two different eras who secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known, while Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his home and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out on quests to find what they're missing that unfold with mesmerizing symmetry. In 1927, young Rose runs away from home in New Jersey and makes her way to Manhattan, hoping to find someone who was an important part of her past. Fifty years later Ben, a deaf boy befallen by personal tragedy, finds a clue about his family that leads him to run away from rural Minnesota to New York. As their adventures lead them to strange new places, where mysteries about themselves and the world seem to lurk around every corner, their stories of discovery reach across years of silence and regret, and find each other through a mesmerizing symmetry driven by wonder and hope.
For Rose, life under the strict control of her father is typical for a deaf child of her era, kept out of public view with little connection to the world outside of her beloved scrapbook, an elaborate, living work of art dedicated mostly to the career of an actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). When Mayhew comes to New York to open up a new play, Rose manages to find her way into Manhattan, hoping to connect to the silent movie star. For lifelong Ben, his deafness is recent, the result of a freak accident that occurred shortly after the loss of his mother, free-spirited Elaine (Michelle Williams). Sorting through her things, he finds a clue about his unknown father; a souvenir book from New York City. He boards a bus, unbeknownst to his bereft aunt, and eventually arrives in Manhattan. For both young people, their inability to hear and communicate makes their quest in the big city fraught with excitement and danger. Their simple goals quickly turn complex as the chaos and confusion of city streets derail them. Despite their maturity and determination, they're easily overwhelmed and reluctant to seek help. Both wind up seeking solace at 'The American Museum Of Natural History', where new and old friends join them in confronting the questions that Rose and Ben so desperately need answered.
Anyone who read Brian Selznick’s novel 'The Invention Of Hugo Cabret' probably won’t be surprised to learn that Selznick’s follow-up, "Wonderstruck", documents a child’s sense of awe as they discover an adult world that's often marked by loneliness, confusion and regret. And like it's predecessor, "Wonderstruck" manages to infuse it's story with a childlike sense of magic and possibility, rendered both in word and image. Selznick’s novels are as much informed by his amazing illustrations as they're by the vividly imagined characters and marvelous historical settings that populate his work. You hear the words in your imagination, and then the narrative continues in the pictures but without words; it shifts into a different part of your brain. The book works at the deepest level, evoking the imagination and allowing spaces to fill in the gaps yourself, and you take possession of it and it’s your own. The fact that it created a dialogue between these two periods of time, but having the continuity of New York fifty years changed, from the 1920s story to the 1970s story, just begged to be turned into the language of cinema.
Maybe if you make a book, where there are pictures that tell the story of a deaf character, it would parallel in some fashion the way that she experiences her life, because they would both be visual. The result is a book that's unlike any other reading experience. Immediately after it's publication in 2011, 'Wonderstruck' became must-reading for people of all ages. The initial impulse to tell the story of a remarkable journey from the perspective of one deaf child grew into two stories and two journeys, told alternatively throughout the book. One story is shown entirely in Selznick’s exquisitely detailed and delicate illustrations, in the tradition of the graphic novel, but without any text or words, the life as seen through young Rose in 1927. Born deaf, Rose lives with a father who hides her away, and she escapes into New York City hoping to make a connection with a famous actress, Lillian Mayhew. The sights of the great urban landscape at the height of the jazz age are experienced by the reader as if through Rose’s eyes, the silence of her life all the more powerfully rendered. Rose’s family, they don’t really understand how deaf people live in the world, and they’re afraid of her.
Though she recognizes that Rose’s father, a physician ashamed of his daughter’s condition, means well by trying to keep his daughter safe and essentially locked up. Rose’s absent mother factors into Rose’s psyche in a complicate manner. At the beginning of the story, Rose seems to suspect that famous actress Lillian Mayhew is her real mother, and that possibility suggests more than just abandonment. She’s a young mother, almost a little too young, and maybe she didn’t want children. She wants to be free and independent, and as a woman back then, she didn’t have a lot of rights. Maybe she wants to be the one to show her daughter that women can do things and be independent, she concludes as to what Rose finds so fascinating about the mysterious Lillian. The population of deaf children, some of whom, like Rose, were never able to hear, and others like Ben who become deaf because of illness or accident; is very small. For members of the deaf community and their allies, that has not prevented recent generations of deaf artists from expressing themselves creatively through storytelling and the visual and performing arts.
The second story takes place fifty years later, and also features a young hero, Ben, traveling to New York City, this time looking for clues about his long-lost father. Ben is only recently deaf, so his story is told in traditional prose, as he experiences many of the same challenges and obstacles that Rose faces, but with a different set of memories, intentions, and abilities. Ultimately, of course, the two stories intersect; the girl who was once Rose emerges as an older woman who might hold the key to Ben’s identity as well. But along the journey, the reader is drawn in and out of each story through Selznick’s deft and confident play between these two very different modes of reading. What the reader sees in Rose’s story defies language; what the reader hears in their head via the words in Ben’s story spark the visual imagination in a way that no words could properly describe. Wonderstruck is designed to be two stories, one with pictures only, one with words only. They’re both in search of family. They’re both in search of community, in search of a history.
The.way these stories intersected in unexpected and beautiful ways means there's an evocation of childhood in both stories that also felt very authentic. There's the challenge of recreating 1970s New York. That personal connection is important, as some audiences might have forgotten about New York City’s bleaker years. That was the time of that famous 'Daily News' headline; ‘Ford To City: Drop Dead', about New York’s national reputation as decaying and crime-ridden. Indeed, viewers of “Wonderstruck” who are more familiar with the New York of Woody Allen or 'Sex And The City' might be thrown by “Wonderstruck”’s spot-on depiction of a once-glorious metropolis struggling to survive. 1927 was a period of ascendancy and hope, and the city was still being built. It was New York on the rise. The year that Rose ventures forth from her home into the city, is the year that is often remembered as the turning point in film history, when Warner Brothers’ “The Jazz Singer” ushered in the era of sound moviemaking after it's debut in October of that year. In fact, most film historians note that the transition to sound film dates back much earlier and the full impact of talkies was not realized until a couple of years later, but for a symbolic point in time, 1927 will do.
This key event in 1927 is often pointed out as a triumph in technology, something that moves everything forward. From the perspective of deaf culture and deaf history, it was a tragedy for the deaf community, because it separated them from the audiences who were enjoying the movies. Before that, you.could go as a deaf person, and the action is mostly happening visually on screen. Indeed, though the character of Lillian Mayhew is not deaf, she finds herself in an equally troubling transition from visibility to perhaps irrelevance. As a young girl, Rose can’t quite appreciate it, but Lillian’s stock as a film star is clearly falling with the coming of sound, and her return to the stage is more of a desperate act to keep her fame alive than an ambitious career move. But 1977 was the nadir and falling apart, and that’s just factually true, and something that really conveyed in the novel that's a key element of the film. However, the crossover of deaf characters into mainstream culture has been largely restricted in recent times to adult characters, from dramatic fare like 'Children Of A Lesser God' to 'Marvel Comic Avenger'. The result is that there isn’t much precedent in cinema for telling a story, two stories, in fact, from the perspective of a child who cannot hear. Because both protagonists in the film set out on their own, there's no guardian or protector, no translator, and neither of them know how to use sign language.
“Wonderstruck” cannot rely on secondary characters, subtitles, or other familiar narrative devices that might be used as a point of access for a film viewer. Selznick had consulted with a variety of friends and colleagues involved in deaf culture and education as he was writing the novel, wanting to make it as authentic to the deaf character's experience while still not making the story exclusively about the character's disability. But books, at least the traditional kind on paper, don’t have an audio component. Even so-called silent films were never silent, so the film addresses the complex problem of what deaf feels like while still employing some sort of sound track. What’s so exhilarating about "Wonderstruck" is that it's always designed as a half-silent film. The black-and-white story would be told as a silent film, and silent film plays a role in the story itself, Rose’s mother is a silent screen star. Meanwhile, Ben, who’s newly deaf, spends a good hour of the film on a silent voyage not conversing with anyone, just observing. So, the two stories interact without sound in very different ways. It allows for a very rich and nuanced role that the sound design plays between music and ambient sound,.between subjective and objective interplay of sound that Ben is sensing, since he just lost his hearing. There’s the suggestion that there’s the phantom sound that haunts him, the memory of sound.
It’s not a stretch to say that the film experts at period recreation, but the ability to capture a specific time and place is often more than just a matter of getting the details right. For example, the lush suburban 1950s setting of "Far from Heaven" is as much a tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk and other directors of the era as it's about precision and accuracy, while the dazzling 1970s of “Velvet Goldmine” owes more than a debt to the stylized glam rock lifestyle of it's characters as much as it does to the real time and place. That ability is demonstrated again, twofold, in “Wonderstruck,” as the story takes place fifty years apart and almost entirely in New York City, with much of the action occurring at the iconic 'American Museum Of Natural History'. In many ways, the story functions as a.mystery, in turn answering and then uncovering more questions about what's driving each.child’s journey and why they're being paralleled. In the end, we learn the value of following your own instincts and curiosity and overcoming your fears through various kinds of creative practices. It's a transformational power that we've in our own hands. It’s very much about what you can learn and experience through your own eyes and what you can accomplish with your own hands. Not just overcoming loss and the unknown, but how to reach out and communicate with one another.