This movie could be the next children's classic

Channel24 correspondent Rozanne Els attended the New York Film Festival and heard the director and cast dish about the new movie, Wonderstruck.

New York - For some it is still The Sound of Music, while others gladly continue to indulge in Mary Poppins and the earworm “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” For decades to come it might very well be Wonderstruck – a sure thing as one of next year’s Oscar contenders. 

The movies you see as a child stick with you, even more so the first one you completely sat through without napping, crying, or temper tantrums. Mine was The Little Mermaid, but I so wish it had been Wonderstruck.

The film, opening in 2018 in South African cinemas, is a gem for children, those who are still children at heart and the many who never had one. Granted, Disney controls the childhood film experience. Wonderstruck won’t be the next Frozen at the box office, though it thoroughly deserves to be. It screened as the centerpiece of this year’s New York Film Festival, after which the audience met Millicent Simmonds, the 14-year-old actress who brings to life the character of Rose, a young deaf girl who escapes an oppressive life in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927, and journeys over the choppy Hudson River to the bustle of Manhattan, New York, to find the star of the silent films she watches day after day.

Like her character, Millie, as she is called by cast mates, Julianne Moore among them, was forced to lip-read when she was a little girl, and only taught to sign much, much later. She understands the challenges Rose faced “very, very well.” Speaking through her interpreter, Millie tells of her and Rose’s shared frustration at how hard it is to make yourself understood. “I had the same experience as child; it’s very, very difficult. It’s hard to lip-read if you’ve never heard what words sound like.” Later Millie turns to Brian Selznick, author of the illustrated novel on which director Todd Haynes based the film, and who sits next to her on the stage. “Brian always said, ‘Bring Rose to life,’ and that really inspired me. Whenever you said that to me, it gave me chills.”

Rose’s story is paralleled with that of a young boy named Ben in the 1970’s. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is struck by lightning shortly after his mother (a small role delicately played by Michelle Williams) dies, and loses his hearing. Like Rose, Ben runs away to New York City. While Rose’s parts play out as a black and white late-period silent film, Ben’s part shows the gritty, dirty, bright-and-alive troubled New York City of the 1970’s. Their stories are bound in a place that exists in both these eras, a place of pure wonder: The American Museum of Natural History. 


When Haynes first read Selznick’s’ novel, it made him think about how much movies meant to him as a young person, “the films that entered my bloodstream and changed the way I saw things. They were films that were always a little beyond my reach, and that’s what you want to show kids. You want to expose them to complex, sophisticated, cool stuff that they make their own,” he said at the festival. 

For Haynes, who won a Golden Globe for directing the critically acclaimed 2016 movie Carol, this was a chance to do something special for young people – an audience he has never really addressed in his work before. “A unique film in every conceivable way...but that really respected that (their youth) and that made this line between the imaginations of young people, the language of cinema at almost its most elemental and the theme of deafness.”

Haynes also describes Wonderstruck as an extraordinary tribute to New York, a “beautiful reflection on time and how time is reflected in the institutions of New York, like The American Museum of Natural History, or Queens Museum,” where some of the film’s most gripping scenes play out. 

Asked about his favourite childhood film, Haynes said Mary Poppins was the first film he developed an obsession with – at the age of three. “I think it was partly that film, but it was partly the fact that it was the first film I ever saw. It made me want to respond in kind creatively: Draw a million pictures about Mary Poppins, act out the scenes of Mary Poppins, dress my mom up as Mary Poppins.”

Moore shared her memories of growing up in Alaska and going to the cinema every Saturday “no matter what.”

Moore plays multiple roles – one of which is that of a deaf woman. There was some pushback from the deaf community, and a #deaftalent Twitter campaign advocated for a deaf actress to play the role. Moore approached the role with great sensitivity, studied ASL (American Sign Language) and watched movies on deaf culture. Moore and Haynes, who is known for giving his actors a lot of resources to mine for their characters, are also frequent collaborators. Even after having made so many movies together (including Safe and Far from Heaven) Haynes said Moore still surprises him. “Every single time.” 

(Photos: AP/Getty Images)