All movies ask us to believe, some more than others. Todd Haynes’s “Wonderstruck” is one of the rare ones that requires commitment at a primal level, and either you’ll connect with it or you won’t.
I walked out of the movie on a cloud of happiness that was only slightly dissipated after a night’s sleep. A critical acquaintance found the whole thing much too icky-sticky sweet.
It may be a generational issue.
Half of “Wonderstruck” takes place in the gritty New York City of the late 1970s, with sights and sounds and musical cues that pushed this aging moviegoer’s pop-culture memory buttons hard. My friend is 30 years younger; is that why he resisted a magical-realist urban fairy tale set in the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” era? Or are our interactions with the wish fulfillments we call cinema a more mysterious matter?
The New York scenes of “Wonderstruck” follow a young boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley) whose mother (Michelle Williams) has recently died and who has arrived in the city from Wisconsin seeking his father. Two problems: Ben is newly deaf from a lightning strike back home, and he has no idea who his father is or where he might live. All he has is a bookmark with the address of an Upper West Side bookshop and an old tome, called “Wonderstruck,” about the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West. (Every time he opens the book, the soundtrack fills with “Evening Star,” a bewitching 1975 instrumental track by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp.)
The other half of Haynes’s film unfolds in 1927, initially across the river in Hoboken, N.J., where a poor little rich girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), also deaf, worships the silent movies and their biggest star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). These scenes are shot in the style of silent cinema itself, black and white with title cards, the orchestra swooning in contrast to the period pop songs of the 1970s scenes.
What do the two eras have to do with each other? Where and when and how will Ben’s and Rose’s stories intertwine? Surprisingly, the narrative mystery that propels the two halves of “Wonderstruck” takes a back seat to the wonderment of the kids’ respective odysseys, which end up circling around the Museum of Natural History before plunging into its dioramas and cabinets of marvels.
Ben befriends a boy, Jamie (Jaden Michael), whose father works in the museum and who knows the secret rooms and hidden archives. Rose, on the run from an officious museum guard (Damian Young), works her own way toward the center of the museum’s enigmas.
If this sounds a little like “Hugo,” the kids’ book that got turned into a 2011 Martin Scorsese movie, you’re not wrong. “Wonderstruck” is based on a similar gravely majestic and rapturously illustrated young adult novel by “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” author Brian Selznick, who has also written the new movie’s script; the film’s a hermetically sealed confabulation of longing and connection given weight and artistry by the man behind the camera.
Haynes has ranged from the avant-garde to the near-mainstream, from an all-Barbie-doll biopic about Karen Carpenter to the neo-classicist melodrama of “Far From Heaven.” He has deconstructed Dylan in “I’m Not There” and probed the sexual repressions of the 1950s in “Carol.” He’s among our best, most intuitively creative filmmakers, and “Wonderstruck” is both a lesser work and one that feels close to his movie-besotted heart.
The 1920s sequences re-create the silent era with more conviction and attention to detail than “The Artist,” and when Ben and Jamie sneak a sleepover and prowl the darkened dioramas, the results are more spookily resonant than “A Night at the Museum.” All the 1977 scenes seem faded with the heat of that year’s notorious summer, and the production design throughout is of an astonishing richness — when we finally get to that Upper West Side bookshop, there’s not an anachronistic paperback to be seen.
In Rose and Jamie and especially Ben (played by the sad-faced Fegley, who helped make the recent “Pete’s Dragon” remake so memorable) “Wonderstruck” has a trio of lost kids all trying to find their various ways home. Rose’s story recedes while Ben’s fills up the final hour, and you’ll doubtless connect the movie’s dots of coincidence before the characters do. These are flaws of story construction rather than the emotions that slowly draw the narrative filaments together.
True believers will be rewarded with a finale that whisks us out to Queens, to one of New York City’s hidden wonders, and to a resolution of the film’s visual and thematic rhymes into a cityscape that stands literally at its young hero’s feet. If you’re the right impressionable age — 9 or 10 or 11 — “Wonderstruck” may possibly strike you as the best movie ever made. If you’re old enough to remember being that young, it may simply remind you of how it once felt to feel that way about a movie.
Directed by Todd Haynes. Written by Brian Selznick, based on his book. Starring Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, West Newton. 115 minutes. PG (thematic elements and smoking).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.