Benh Zeitlin blew me away with his tender, fantastical 2012 debut “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. The film was critically acclaimed and was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture. It has taken eight years but we finally have his follow-up feature, a slightly modernized reimagining of J. M. Barrie’s century old Peter Pan. The catch is he tells the story from Wendy’s point of view.
“Wendy” sees Zeitlin once again exploring childhood in the rural south. As with “Beasts”, we spend the vast majority of the time seeing things through a young girl’s eyes. That’s the headspace Zeitlin is most interested in and it leads to some indulgences that several fellow critics had a hard time digesting. There are moments where the story seems to drift, but when the visuals and the story come together, the film exudes a magical quality that quite frankly swept me away.
We first meet Wendy (played by delightful newcomer￼ Devin France) as a young child, her head draped in brown curls, watching the world through her inquisitive blue eyes. Her single mom (Shay Walker) waits tables at a train station diner to support Wendy and her rambunctious twin brothers James (Gavin Naquin) and Douglas (Gage Naquin). It’s hard work but she’s a mom doing what she can for her kids.
Bop ahead a few years where 10-year-old Wendy worries about a depressing future stripped of joy and adventure. She sees the melancholy in every adult face that comes through the diner. She listens to her mother talk about forsaking her own childhood dream of being a rodeo queen. It’s too much for Wendy who swears off getting old and sets out with her two brothers to escape the bittersweet reality of growing up.
Late one night the three hop out of their bedroom windows and onto a passing train where they meet a mysterious boy named Peter (Yashua Mack). He whisks them away to a remote volcanic island where he leads the Lost Boys, a band of children who run free and never grow old. The one prerequisite is that they believe in Peter and his close connection to the island’s mystical spirit which he calls Mother.
But they aren’t the only ones on the island. On the far side of Neverland live those who have lost faith in Mother. And much like the patrons at the train station diner, they’re old, worn down, and without hope. Their presence sets up the inevitable clash with the Lost Boys, with Wendy and her brothers as key players.
Written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, “Wendy” tells a story where reality and fantasy co-exist. Their movie is a fascinating puzzle filled with metaphors and symbolism, where images are the Zeitlins’ greatest method of storytelling. They lean heavily on Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s stunning cinematography which wrings feeling out every closeup and captures childlike wonder in every sweeping pan of the island (shot mostly in Montserrat).
It’s the harmonious gelling of image and music that stands out the most. Dan Romer’s breathtaking score is crucial, never manipulative, and pulsating with heart and adventure. It and the camera do as much as the dialogue to explore the film’s many themes. Motherhood, rural poverty, fear of growing old, yearning for lost youth – just some of the things Zeitlin has on his mind.
“Wendy” won’t please purists who are intent on comparing it with other Peter Pan adaptations. It’s built around Barrie’s general framework but it puts its own contemporary spin on things. Sometimes Zeitlin is too literal, sometimes he’s too vague. The occasional salty dialogue from the kids feels forced and not all of the non-professional performances click. But those things never rob the movie of its imagination, emotion, and grit. Sure, you could pick it apart. Or you could put your guard down, fall under its spell, and let it sweep you away. I chose the latter and I’m so glad I did.
VERDICT – 4 STARS