Director Todd Haynes talks exploring political discourse through childhood lens in ‘Wonderstruck’

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A movie that started as what director Todd Haynes described in an interview as an impressive and sensitive novel observing the realities of deafness in youths of different eras, “Wonderstruck” hits theaters Oct. 20. With a myriad of complex themes and nostalgic moments, Haynes’s watchful eye guides poignant scenes that convey the exact heartfelt ode to youth that he intended.

The film follows the story of two somewhat isolated kids, weird and quirky yet determined to accomplish their goals even in the face of a great challenge –– being deaf. While Haynes typically directs adult-focused films in a powerful, moving manner, “Wonderstruck” has a sweet, childlike fun that brings a much-needed sense of innocence back to the public. His intention is to remind audiences of what it is like to be a kid who doesn’t overthink, who doesn’t take things personally and who is living every moment to the next.

“I learned this while making the movie — that sentimentality is something that adults project onto kids,” explained Haynes. “It’s not really something kids feel themselves.” When kids are in the middle of life and confronted by pain and anguish, Haynes observes, they solve their problems as they go along, unfazed by the struggle.

“Wonderstruck” sheds a light on the isolated kid, the weird one with nowhere to go. Haynes’ main stars, Rose, played by the impressive deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, and Ben, played by star-on-the-rise Oakes Fegley, make artistic decisions that Haynes applauds for adding a natural and exciting quality to the film.

“[Ben’s] actually a kid on a mission. … He walks out into Port Authority into this world he’s never seen before, and it’s almost like he’s not going to let it get in his way. He kind of just marches through it, which almost is more humorous,” noted Haynes. Watching two young kids unapologetically dive into the abyss that is New York City, we feel fear for them — but in a much more real sense, we feel the warmth of watching kids being so courageous.

Ben’s journey mixes traumatic scenes with magical museum chases that unfold to be emblematic of the easiness of friendship in childhood. However, Rose’s section of the film carries a heavier underlying purpose. It’s 1927, and Rose is a film fanatic being faced with the juncture between silent films, which she can indulge in and experience, and sound films, which isolate her.

Hayne’s connects this emergence of sound in film to a broader theme that is poignant outside of the context of the film. “It segregated a portion of the population unwittingly, and how we do that all the time,” he explained. “People get pushed out sometimes not by intent, but just by the forward momentum of society.” By presenting this independent female character watching the films she loves adapted to sound, something she can’t enjoy draws attention to a bigger issue. It helps the audience recognize that people need to promote sensitivity in the world and think twice about their actions.

Using a film to make a statement about society is not new to Haynes. 2015’s “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, was the story of a lesbian couple in the 1950s. While the movie came out two years ago, the tale — which upon release was a cautionary story about how things used to be — is more relevant now than ever. Haynes commented on the fact that, in this political climate, it’s clear that battles we thought we had won about racism, sexism, LGBTQ+ rights and more still face a large degree of pushback.

He also took the time to address the multitude of accusations of sexual violence against film producer Harvey Weinstein, calling his alleged actions “appalling.”

“We just elected a president who is a sexual predator,” said Haynes. “The media and the population turned against Hillary Clinton for being a woman who dares to take on a position of authority. … Everybody was thrilled by the image of a man, unfiltered, unfettered, saying everything he thinks, with no consideration about how it might hurt people.”

In the political climate of today, the world is reverting back to a place where stigmatizing people and communities is becoming the norm, but Haynes’s movies, ideally, show audiences that acceptance and support have a more meaningful impact on society.

When all’s said and done, films are not just entertainment, but vehicles that can inspire essential change. Haynes makes it clear that the purpose of his movies is to spark conversation. “Wonderstruck” is not just a movie for him, but a narrative of a strong, powerful girl in the 1920s and a lonely, scrappy young boy in the 1970s, both treking their ways through a daunting and frustrating world, hopeful and unafraid.

Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].