The cacophony of the Cannes Film Festival was tamed Thursday by a deaf 14-year-old actress, Millicent Simmonds, whose screen debut is being hailed as a breakthrough.

Todd Haynes' partly wordless fable Wonderstruck premiered in competition at Cannes, bringing the festival one of its most anticipated films and a possible Academy Awards contender.

The film, Haynes' follow-up to his much Oscar-nominated Carol, is based on the young-adult novel by Brian Selznick.

It was warmly received and given hearty applause at Cannes by a bleary-eyed audience at the 8.30am screening on Thursday, where it is already hotly tipped for awards.

Hollywood Reporter called Wonderstruck "a genuinely affecting story of children and family that doubles as a work of fabulous cinematic artifice," while Variety noted that, for all its attributes, it "is a movie that literally tries to add up, piece by piece, into a fully assembled puzzle of greatness, but the puzzle is less than transporting because you can still see all the seams." 

Fanciful and sentimental, Wonderstruck is an unlikely family-friendly turn for Haynes, the director of Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce. But it doubles down on his fondness for period tales, weaving parallel story lines from 1927 and 1977.

In the '70s setting, an orphaned boy who loses his hearing due to an accident, played by Oakes Fegley, runs away from his Minnesota home for New York. In 1927, the deaf Rose, played by Simmonds, escapes her overbearing father in New Jersey for New York, seeking a silent movie star played by Julianne Moore.

The film, richly evocative of different eras in film history, toggles between colour and black-and-white, and between sound and silence.

France Cannes 2017 Wonderstruck Photo Call

Simmonds, making her film debut in Wonderstruck, astonished Haynes with her audition tape. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

Haynes and his casting director, Laura Rosenthal, cast the role of Rose via the deaf community, rather than choosing an actor playing deaf. Simmonds, from Utah, had no previous film experience but astonished the director with her audition tape.

"It was our incredible good fortune to find this girl, Millie, who from the very beginning — the very first time I saw her tape — I just shivered," he told reporters Thursday.

"There was something about the integrity of her as a person that showed through that was true and ultimately you see it on the screen. Our good fortune in finding Millie can't be overstated."

Simmonds sat next to Haynes while a translator fed her sign language from the front row. She said Wonderstruck changed her life.

"It was such a wonderful story, I just re-read it. I'd go: 'Stop reading ahead. I have to focus on today's scene.' I just got lost in the story," Simmonds said, using sign language.

"It was such an honour. I can't even find the words to explain what it was like to work with Todd. I never dreamt my life would come here, to this."

Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios have given Wonderstruck an awards season release date, slating it for Oct. 20 in the United States.