Wonderstruck: A Wonderful Silent Film

Eighty-two years ago, silence was golden for the film industry. Actors like Charlie Chaplin could make audiences laugh until they cried, while actresses like Mary Pickford stole the hearts of America. Silent films could move an audience without uttering a word because a great deal of effort went into storytelling and performances.

Decades later, we are so spoiled by the magic of sound that we take for granted how far film has come. However, with movies like Wonderstruck, we can appreciate film’s roots.

Since the death of his mother, Ben, played by Oaks Fegley, longs to find his missing father now more than ever. Ben goes through his mother’s old room to find traces of his father, where he comes across a book mark stashed in a museum exhibit book.

The book reads an address located in New York City. After coming across the bookmark, Ben is suddenly struck by lightning and becomes deaf.

Despite his hearing impairment, Ben sneaks away on a bus heading to New York City to find his father. Meanwhile, there’s another story parallel to Ben’s, which features Rose, played by Millicent Simmonds, who is also a deaf child in search for someone.

While it may sound far-fetched, the story is told beautifully by giving the audience a perspective on hearing impairment, while nailing the time periods of Ben and Rose’s narratives.

Ben’s part of the story takes place in the early 1970s where Ziggy Stardust blasts from every record player, the hair is tall, and floral dress shirts with ties are a fashion statement.

Considering he becomes deaf early on, we experience Ben’s transition from having the capability of hearing to losing it completely. Through point-of-view shots, we get an idea of what it is like for Ben to adjust to life with a hearing impairment.

While in Ben’s shoes, there is complete silence with some static in the background, which comes from a dog barking or police sirens wailing. On the other hand, most of the scenes during Ben’s time consist of a funky 1970s score, credited to the executive in charge of music, Bob Bowen.

Although Ben’s part of the story is not completely silent, it is about as close to a silent film as one can get with a major release. For this reason, the film makes for a good beginning feature if one has an interest in silent movies.

The story that embodies all aspects of silent cinema is Rose’s, which is set in New York City, 1923. All of Rose’s scenes are shot in black and white and are silent, despite the score.

Surprisingly, there are no intertitles during Rose’s part, but instead, words are written on a notepad from one character to another.

Every feature of 1923’s New York City is spot on with its set design. Mark Friedberg’s set design captures a New York City where Model-T’s own the streets, Ziegfeld Follies is in neon lights on Times Square, and silent movie theaters see their end. When Rose exits after watching a silent film, it turns out to be her last. The movie theater is closing for a renovation to install the new talkie technology.

Although talkies are taking the country by storm, Rose’s part of the story is silent. The score sounds exactly like an original silent film by using instruments familiar to the era like shakers and organs. Additionally, the score follows the actions of each character, like the pounding of a fist or footsteps of a security guard.

The acting in Rose’s story aligns with the silent era as well.

The actors are much more animated in their actions than they would be in a movie with sound. In silent film, most performers act over the top to make up for the loss of sound. Essentially, their actions could speak louder than words.

This tradition carries on in Wonderstruck, especially in moments where arguments are occurring. For example, when Rose’s father yells at her, it’s as if his mustache is about to fall off.

This acting style from all of those involved in Rose’s part, along with the meticulous set design and pitch-perfect score, make for a strong tribute to silent film.

Despite the bizarre story, Wonderstruck serves as a semi-silent film that can be enjoyed by both children and adults.

The characters of Ben and Rose give a perspective on hearing impairment in moments where we see from their point-of-view, along with the interactions they have with those who do not understand their situation.

Additionally, it beautifully captures the era of silent film in all technical aspects during Rose’s part. In 2017, it is refreshing to see this approach that has been silent for over eighty years.