Wonderstruck is, in some senses, a natural next step for Haynes. With Mildred Pierce and Carol he had already migrated away from the intricate conceptual gambits, biting social ironies, and pastiche-like visual textures that defined his earlier work, from Poison and Dottie Gets Spanked to the exacting Sirk emulation of Far From Heaven and the six different Dylan tributes, starring six different actors, that collided in I’m Not There. Mildred Pierce and Carol were more somber than their predecessors. The rhythms at which they moved were smoother and less disjunctive, their color palettes not as bright.
But Haynes’s new film still does seem to mark a shift in his thinking. It’s the first film he’s made in which the business of fitting out domestic spaces like Jamie’s attic or Ben’s bedroom — designing them, dressing them, decorating them — proceeds smoothly, without devolving into an occasion for anyone to be stigmatized, excluded, or caught in a social transgression. The threat of such exposure has always been an important source of energy in Haynes’s movies: it pushed his Dylan and Bowie figures into more extreme forms of self-reinvention and drove the wives and mothers in Safe, Far From Heaven, and Carol to similar extremes of heartbreak or desperation. No comparable source of drama emerges in Wonderstruck to take its place. And so for the first time we have a Haynes film in which no one seems to desire anything terribly off-limits.