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New movie ‘Wonderstruck’ shines spotlight on deaf culture

What is it like to have a father who doesn’t know how to empathize or sympathize with a child’s deafness?

That’s the base of a new movie called Wonderstruck, which stars 14-year-old deaf actress Millicent (Millie) Simmonds, who plays the role of 12-year-old Rose, a deaf child from 1927 who runs away to New York City in search of her favorite silent movie actress.

Directed by Todd Haynes, Wonderstruck is based on the book written by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the scripts for the movie. The movie showcases #deaftalent and highlights themes of deafness in different eras of history.

Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds makes her movie debut

Wonderstruck stars deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, who is already impressing several well-known actors with her powerful performance, including co-star Julianne Moore. People are calling Simmonds the next Marlee Matlin and are comparing her performance to Matlin’s in Children of a Lesser God. 

Haynes says he wanted both sides of this history and culture to be apparent throughout the movie. This is also one of the reasons he wanted to have a deaf actor play Rose. He wanted Simmonds to connect with Rose and bring awareness to deaf culture, which she did a fantastic job of doing, he told NPR

“I’m so glad and lucky that he felt like finding someone deaf to play Rose was important to him,” Simmonds told Entertainment Weekly. “I’m grateful he chose me to play Rose. And I think it means a lot to the deaf community for them to see someone deaf play a deaf character.”

“And I think it means a lot to the deaf community for them to see someone deaf play a deaf character.”

Read more: #DeafTalent: Q&A with Deaf Filmmaker Jules Dameron

While Simmonds is being praised for her performance, she says she did have to adapt as someone with hearing loss on set.

She told Entertainment Weekly about the numerous ways that she would be told ‘action!’ onset. These ways included vibrations from aluminium bars dropping on the floor, having her interpreter hide behind a bookshelf to sign action and having her mom as an extra in a scene to sign “action” to her. 

Julianne Moore’s thoughts on deaf culture 

Co-star Julianne Moore, who plays the silent film actress who Rose admires, says she was fascinated and inspired by deaf culture while filming the movie.

According to an article in USA Today, Moore spent two months learning American Sign Language (ASL) to prepare for her scenes. As she learned the language, she was able to see the beauty in ASL and deaf culture. Simmonds also helped her with her signing and encouraged her to not give up. Moore told USA Today, “She was so nice about my signing, which is bad. It’s like talking to a baby, I’m not kidding.”

Read more: Easily learn sign language by studying these GIFs

Deaf culture and history in the film

Throughout the movie when there are scenes with Rose, the sound is silenced. 

“Deafness is a theme in the film… so the language of silent movies seemed like a beautiful way to unite the hearing and non- hearing audience,” Haynes told Entertainment Weekly,

“Deafness is a theme in the film… so the language of silent movies seemed like a beautiful way to unite the hearing and non- hearing audience.”

Haynes explains this more in an interview with NPR, “From what I understand of the history is that following the era of Helen Keller, which was a really progressive moment for the way deaf and handicapped kids and blind kids started to be educated in the United States, oralism was imposed. And that was forcing kids to speak and to assimilate into hearing society as much as possible.”

Wonderstruck is out today in select theaters! Grab your movie ticket, head to the show and let us know what you think!

Kirsten Brackett
Kirsten Brackett
Kirsten is the managing editor of Hearing Like Me. She has a moderate hearing loss and currently wears Phonak Audéo B-R rechargeable hearing aids.Outside of working for Hearing Like Me, she can be found exploring new cities, trying out new recipes in her kitchen, or hiking. She loves learning about different cultures and languages.