One of the most anticipated films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Wendy is the latest work from Beasts of the Southern Wild filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, his first in the seven years since that groundbreaking, Oscar-nominated film was released. Sticking with loose themes of stories of childhood told through the lens of magical realism, Zeitlin (who co-wrote Wendy with sister Eliza Zeitlin) has taken on nothing short of the legend of Peter Pan, as perceived through the very modern eye of a young Louisiana girl named Wendy (newcomer Devin France, although everyone in this film is a newcomer).
In a fascinating way, the Zeitlins have deconstructed the Peter Pan mythology and pieced it back together in unexpected—sometimes very different—ways than we’re used to seeing from this tale of children who never want to grow up. Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin) are seduced by Peter, who travels the antiquated rail lines looking for children desperate to get out of their home life. Wendy and her brothers hate that they’re growing up poor and with few prospects for escaping their lives, so the idea of running off seems appealing. But when they arrive to an island destination, seemingly occupied only by wild children, all sense of time and space vanishes; they even begin to forget where they are from and what their real names are.
This is the place run by Peter (a magnetic Yashua Mack), who waxes poetic about staying young forever as long as you truly believe that you want to. If you so much as entertain the idea that staying young is bad, you start to age rapidly, like you’re cursed. One of the more interesting new ideas Zeitlin brings to his story is that the “pirates” are actually just kids who doubted and grew up rapidly, making them angry and wanting to take revenge of those who stay perpetually young.
But perhaps the Zeitlins’ greatest achievement in Wendy is removing the Tinker Bell character and replacing her with a mythological character called Mother, which is partly the active volcano where the kids live and partly a giant sea creature that glows bright and seems to be in some way keeping the children youthful and healthy. You have to believe in Mother to reap the full benefits of her powers. And much like the mythical creatures in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mother is rendered beautifully and elegantly by the visual effects team.
I’ll fully admit that I have a low tolerance for films about out-of-control kids, and Wendy is pretty much populated by nothing but that, so I was slowly being driven insane by certain aspects of it. Once Wendy turns from a carefree life on the island to one where she’s attempting to save her family, I found the whole affair far more tolerable. But I was intrigued by this idea that Zeitlin is willing to admit that Peter is a bit of an asshole most of the time, and that anyone who leaves the Peter Pan story thinking Peter might be something less than purely altruistic may finally have gotten the point of the entire journey.
There’s a lingering sense of melancholy that permeates a great deal of Wendy, and it may be there because the ultimate lesson is that never growing up isn’t the dream existence Peter and his friends attempt to convince us it is. It’s treated as a temptation more than a solution, and the Zeitlins are both in awe of these children and slightly terrified by their desire not to join the rest of us in aging, maturing, and being productive members of society. As often as it feels other worldly and visually masterful, Wendy just as often slides into being scattered, jittery and disjointed. The wonder of working with first-time actors can also be a filmmaker’s greatest curse, especially when these children are asked to emote in ways that are simply beyond their abilities. The film lacks the focus and through-line that Beasts possessed, and there are times you half expect it to float away. I admired the work more than enjoyed it, and that keeps it from achieving anything close to greatness.
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