SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Wild Indian” (2021)

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Written, directed, produced, and co-edited by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., “Wild Indian” tells the unsettling story of two men inextricably linked by a violent crime from their childhood. It’s a piercing and clear-eyed examination of trauma, guilt and embracing identity rather than running from it. Told through a deeply authentic indigenous perspective, “Wild Indian” contextualizes numerous aspects of the modern native experience while knocking down conventional approaches to indigenous characters and their stories.

Corbin Jr.’s “Some time ago” opening has an inescapable folktale quality to it. An Ojibwe tribesman trudges under a beautiful sun-cracked forest canopy with nothing but his bow and arrow. We don’t see he’s face, but a caption tells us he “got a little sick“. We don’t know where he’s going, but he’s clearly compelled to keep moving. The short sequence not only drips with allegory, but it’s a subtle way of connecting the past to the modern day. And when the tribesman reappears later, his presence has a much clearer and more visceral meaning.

The story proper begins in 1988 on a Wisconsin reservation where a young teen named Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) wears more bruises than smiles due to an abusive home life. With no childhood to speak of and his innocence stripped away, Makwa’s lone retreat is his cousin and best friend Ted-O (Julian Gopal). Life at a local Catholic school isn’t much better. There he is bullied and left on the fringes by the other students. A priest inquires about the bruises but Makwa refuses to say, knowing what will happen at home if he does.

While walking through the woods after school an exasperated and worn down Makwa tells Ted-O “I don’t want to go home. I can’t handle it no more.” Makwa takes the rifle they slipped out of Ted-O’s house and arbitrarily fires at a classmate walking in the distance. With a cold budding psychopathy Makwa coerces Ted-O into helping him bury the body. Neither tells anyone what happened. All through this a simmering yet perhaps too subtle subtext speaks to missing persons, law enforcement and reservation life.

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The story then leaps ahead to 2019. Makwa (now played by Michael Greyeyes) has burned every hint of his past, his heritage, and his culture. He’s changed his name to Michael Peterson. His marriage to his white wife (Kate Bosworth) feels like an act of assimilation rather than out of genuine love. And his pandering to his bosses (one of them skittishly played by Jesse Eisenberg) has him in line for a promotion at his San Francisco business firm. But Corbin Jr. wastes no time showing that no matter how deep you bury your past you can’t fully escape it.

The trajectory of Ted-O’s life couldn’t be more different. He’s spent the last 25 years in and out of prison mostly for drug offenses and we meet him again (now played by Chaske Spencer) as he’s finishing up a ten-year sentence. A close-minded judge might write Ted-O off as a bad seed. He has a shaved head and tattoos on his face and neck to go with the rap sheet. But underneath the hardened exterior are echoes of a good heart. Even more, he still bears the guilt from that deadly afternoon in the woods.

Contrast that with Michael who is clean-cut, has the fancy suits and walks with an air of success. But underneath his dapper façade is a damaged man barely suppressing his deep-rooted violent impulses. Greyeyes has an austerity and emotional restraint perfect for a man curbing his dark side. But when those impulses boil to the surface Greyeyes can be terrifying and the film’s thriller elements really come to light. And hats off to Corbin Jr. and his fellow indigenous cast and crew for bucking how movies have often handled native characters.

“Wild Indian” highlights the immeasurable value of independent filmmaking. It allows stories to be told from perspectives too often neglected by the studio machines. With this film the uniqueness of Corbin Jr.’s point-of-view is apparent and his storytelling grounds us in a shrewd gritty realism. His sure-handed direction is only hampered by his brisk pacing which whisks us through parts of the story that could have used more detail. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of what we’re given and I can’t wait to see what Corbin Jr. does next.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Wonder Woman 1984” (2020)

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2020 began with a number of exciting blockbusters scheduled for release. But then COVID-19 hit leading to one disappointing postponement after another. Warner Bros. was bold enough to test the big screen waters in early September with Christopher Nolan’s big budget mindbender “Tenet”. But its sagging box office numbers showed other studios that many anxious moviegoers simply weren’t comfortable returning to the theaters. That proved to be the final nail in the coffin for 2020 Hollywood tent-poles.

Well, it was ‘almost’ the final nail. “Wonder Woman 1984” was still slated for a Christmas Day release but in this crazy year nothing is for certain. And then came the earth-shaking announcement that Warner Bros. would be releasing its entire lineup of delayed 2020 movies throughout 2021 in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming platform on the same day. They went on to say the move was kicking off with “WW84” on December 25th. And just like that one of the year’s most anticipated blockbusters was only a few weeks away.

Making a sequel to 2017’s “Wonder Woman” was never going to be easy. Minus its bombastic CGI-heavy finale, the first film is easily in the top-tier of the superhero genre. It was a movie that entertained and inspired; one that felt remarkably fresh yet captured the essence of its comic book source material. It was wonderfully directed by Patty Jenkins who became the first woman to direct a major American superhero flick. And of course it starred the impeccably cast Gal Gadot who instantly became Wonder Woman, not just for a new generation but for old die-hards as well.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

All of that brings me to the long-awaited sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984”. Most of the key ingredients for a fun and exhilarating follow-up are back. It again sees Patty Jenkins directing and co-writing. It sees Gal Gadot returning as the film’s titular character. It still inspires and in its own unique way still feels fresh. But sadly this time around too many things don’t click. Too many good ideas simply don’t come together. And it can’t quite reach its own lofty ambitions. In the end “WW84” left me fascinated yet baffled; entertained but ultimately disappointed.

“Wonder Woman 1984” is a strange movie. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s strange in terms of story, in terms of structure, in terms of tone. It tries to do so much but it struggles to balance it all. So we end up getting its ideas in segmented chunks. First we get a lengthy prologue set in Themyscira. Next it spends time having fun with its main story’s 1980’s setting. Then it reintroduces Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor who does the ‘fish out of water’ thing. Then it takes its serious turn leading to its inevitable action-packed finish. The nostalgic 80’s playfulness and quirky sense of humor is pretty much restricted to the first half and then all but vanishes in the film’s more serious second leg.

After the prologue which is basically there to lay out the story’s main theme, the timeline shifts to 1984. Diana Prince (Gadot) now works as a head anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. She still fights crime on the side as Wonder Woman but keeps a low profile (somehow no one has noticed her? No one?). Some of the film’s more moving moments are when it emphasizes Diana’s loneliness. Despite her prominent position at the museum and a beauty untouched by age that grabs the attention of countless men (crappy ones included), Diana remains isolated and heartbroken, still feeling the loss of her boyfriend Steve from decades earlier.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Diana sympathetically befriends a sheepish new co-worker named Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig). Her character is a fairly familiar one for people who have watched superhero movies. She’s awkward and insecure; a bit nerdy and basically overlooked by everyone other than Diana. Think Jamie Foxx’s Electro or Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. While discussing a believed-to-be worthless rock, Diana and Barbara unwittingly trigger the stone’s wish-granting properties. Diana wishes that Steve was alive while Barbara wishes she had Diana’s beauty and strength, not knowing that Diana was actually a super-powered Amazon.

One person who does know the stone’s power is failing businessman and television huckster Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). He manipulates Barbara and is able to secure the stone for himself. He then wishes to be the very embodiment of the stone giving him the power to grant people’s wishes and taking whatever he wants as payment. Pascal makes for a deliciously campy megalomaniac especially in his early scenes. Unfortunately he loses some of his appeal once the film tosses aside its sense of humor.

Wiig is really good channeling the two sides of Barbara. She delivers several good laughs as the timid yet slyly charming outcast and then has a blast as the super confident “apex predator” who grows more and more enamored with her new self. Meanwhile Diana’s wish comes true when Steve’s soul returns in another man’s body. Visually we basically see what Diana sees in her heart which means we see Chris Pine. There are so many obvious questions about this that the movie avoids. Basically Pine is here for comic relief and only in the later scenes does he become something more than a punchline. Ultimately his value as a character is seen in how he changes Diana. How his very presence brings her the joy and happiness she’s been missing. And how the thought of losing him is more than she can bear. So while Pine is clowning it’s Gadot who gives us our emotional connection.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The story takes its serious turn as Lord becomes obsessed with gaining (of course) more power. “Why not more? Why not wish for more?” He begins targeting world leaders, granting their wishes then broadsiding them with his demands (the film has some fun dabbling in the world politics of 1984). And the further he pushes his lust for control the closer society comes to a full-on collapse. Sadly Wiig gets back-burned during most of this with Barbara basically reserved for action scene duty and not much more. And then there is the ending. Absolutely no spoilers here, but let’s just say it leaves glaring questions that seem like oversights rather than narrative choices.

In one sense I absolutely love the look of the film. Some of the DC movies have been criticized for their dark and gloomy palettes. Not this one. “WW84” is bright and vibrant. Its colors pop off the screen in ways fitting of its neon-loving 80’s setting. But then you get to the special effects, a head-scratching mixed bag of bad character design (sorry Cheetah) to jarringly obvious CGI. It stands out most when Diana is running at super high speeds. Her motions are strangely out of whack, as if she were running in place on a stage and then digitally added to the scene. While there isn’t a ton of action in “WW84”, we do get a couple of exciting scenes, one in a shopping mall and one in the White House, that helps overlook the rougher stuff.

To be clear I did like “WW84”. I like its big-hearted and hopeful message. I still love Patty Jenkins. I still think Gal Gadot is some of the best casting in the entire superhero genre. She carries the movie with an effortless grace. It’s some of the moving parts and the shaky structure around her that unavoidably leaves this feeling like a letdown. Still, there is real entertainment value in breezy big-budget escapism especially after a year like 2020. “WW84” certainly supplies that. But after the greatness of the first film, don’t blame us for expecting more. “Wonder Woman 1984” premieres Christmas day in theaters and on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Wild Mountain Thyme” (2020)

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You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable actress than Emily Blunt (Don’t believe me? Just watch some of her interviews). She instantly brings a certain smile-inducing energy to “Wild Mountain Thyme”, the new not-so-romantic dramedy from writer and director John Patrick Shanley. The film is based on Shanley’s Broadway play “Outside Mullingar” and it packs a handsome cast. But it digs itself into a hole so deep that neither the gorgeous Irish landscapes or Mrs. Blunt herself can dig it out.

For generations the Reillys and the Muldoons have lived side-by-side, their sprawling farms separated by stone fences, a few tree lines, and two very annoying gates. Through the years the old neighbors have had their share of spats. But these days it’s mostly playful jousting between the two widowed family heads, Tony Reilly (Christopher Walken) and Aoife Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy). Both are in their 70s and both are aware that they’ll soon be the ones handing down their family’s properties.

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Image Courtesy of Bleeker Street

For Aoife it’s pretty cut-and-dried. Her more-than-capable daughter Rosemary (Blunt) will inherit and run their farm. On the Reilly side it’s a little more complicated. Tony has kept his son Anthony (Jamie Dornan) in Ireland with the promise that he’ll one day inherit their family’s land. But now the patriarch’s not so sure his shy and slightly oafish son is cut out to carry the Reilly family mantle. In addition to being a tad dense, Anthony has this unusual inability to let himself love and a general fear of happiness. It’s a quirk with Dornan’s character that grows more irritating over time.

The first half of the film plays around with the question of whether or not Anthony will get the farm. The second half is all about his incomprehensible relationship with Rosemary. Since they were children growing up on neighboring properties Rosemary has loved Anthony. And for some inexplicable reason she’s still waiting for the oblivious lunkhead to finally love her back. It puts Blunt in a tough spot. She’s shackled to a character who simply can’t move forward because her entire story arc hinges on Anthony snapping out of his fog.

Things shake up a little when Anthony’s pampered American cousin Adam (John Hamm) shows up. He’s a New York money manager who doesn’t quite understand the Irish’s ways (not that the movie represents them well) but he does set his eye on Rosemary. In reality he’s a flimsy and shallow character who’s only there to move the story to its inevitable finish. And in a weird way you may find yourself rooting for Adam. At least he gives Rosemary something to do other than miserably fawn over Anthony. Meanwhile Anthony mostly mopes around the farm and Dornan’s dry, sterile performance doesn’t do the character any favors.

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Image Courtesy of Bleeker Street

Yes the film eventually tries to explain Anthony’s built-in apprehension, but it culminates in a seemingly endless final 15 minutes which is funny considering how the rest of the movie races from point to point skimming over huge chunks of story. As for the much talked about Irish accents, this south Arkansas native is no expert, but some of them do seem….off. I mean I love Christopher Walken, but his shaky come-and-go Irish-ish accent is pretty entertaining (in the unintentionally funny sense).

The real shame of it is “Wild Mountain Thyme” has moments of real heart and humor. The sweeping Golden era score and the lush rolling scenery makes for a near magical setting. It ends up being a movie you want to root for. But it speeds through so much of the story, shortchanges so many characters, and relies so heavily on a truly annoying lead (sorry Mr. Dornan). It may pass for lightweight escapism for some, but I never could shake the feeling of disappointment. “Wild Mountain Thyme” releases December 11th in theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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REVIEW: “Waiting for the Barbarians” (2020)

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Set within an unnamed territory, an unnamed Magistrate oversees a remote outpost for an unnamed empire. This shrewdly calculated ambiguity has a steady presence throughout “Waiting for the Barbarians”, the new film and English-language debut from Columbian director Ciro Guerra. It’s ambiguous for a reason – to sharpen the relevance for today by not assigning or restricting what we witness to a specific time or nation. Through a broad yet clear lens Guerra indicts both the practices of the past and the mindsets of the present.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is an adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel which explored the ugliness of imperialism and its lasting influence on modern thought. Coetzee also wrote the screenplay (his first) which patiently unwraps the story through its ruminative rhythm and well-tuned characters. And even as its dense early table-setting gives way to the quieter yet more visualized tragedy of the second half, the sense of pertinence is ever-present. And let’s be honest, it doesn’t hurt to have Mark Rylance, Johnny Depp, and Robert Pattinson fleshing our your characters.

Rylance plays the well-meaning magistrate and if there ever was an actor who exuded gentle, unfeigned integrity it’s Rylance. His Magistrate manages the frontier settlement with an air of peaceful passivity. He’s content with his life there, quietly collecting and cataloging old area artifacts while occasionally mediating minor squabbles among locals. He carries himself admirably and is convinced that his benevolence makes him a welcomed presence. However, good intentions and feelings of self-fulfillment blind him to a glaring hypocrisy which he’s eventually forced to reckon with.

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Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Everything changes with the arrival of Colonel Joll (Depp), a member of the Empire’s security force who has been sent to inspect the outpost and investigate alleged unrest on the outskirts of the frontier. We see hints of Depp’s patented eccentricity in his rigidly upright posture, stony-faced demeanor, and steampunkish sunglasses (they’re all the rage back home). But it’s Depp’s words that reveal the most about his character. Joll speaks with an icy malice, coldly absorbing the Magistrate’s initial hospitality before getting down to the business of his visit.

Joll begins rounding up and questioning local nomads with the avidity of an authoritarian, torturing those deemed to be “barbarians” by his superiors. No scene captures Joll’s dry and calloused ruthlessness better than his chilling explanation of the “patience and pressure” approach to interrogation (hint: far more emphasis is on pressure). “Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt.” And just like that Guerra and Coetzee put a spotlight on the real barbarians. Meanwhile all the Magistrate can do is helplessly watch.

Joll and his soldiers depart almost as quickly as they arrive leaving the Magistrate to handle the mess they left behind. But it’s not as though he has clean hands. The almost messianic overtones of the early scenes fade as the Magistrate’s complicity, though subtle and seemingly benign, are brought to light. And as much as he wants to disassociate himself from Joll’s terror, he slowly begins to see that (though cut from a different cloth) he and Joll do the biddings of same master.

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Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

As a form of self-instituted penance the Magistrate takes in an indigenous woman ravaged by Joll’s brutality (she’s opaquely played by Gana Bayarsaikhan). He nurses her back to health, but more as a balm for his own bruised conscience rather than for her well-being. It’s only when he’s jolted out of his guilt-stricken haze that he finally does the right thing. But in doing so he sparks the ire of the Empire and finds himself under the boot of the very authority he once represented.

Coetzee’s deliberately paced script gives the actors plenty of room to leave their marks. While Depp instantly grabs your attention with his convincingly sinister presence, it’s Rylance who carries the emotional workload. With a soft-spoken and heartfelt authenticity, his performance manages to secure our sympathy and pity. He’s gives us a man on a journey, who eventually finds his conviction, and willingly pays a price for it. Pattinson gets a small but effective role as young officer who’s clearly a product of the Empire. By the time he comes around, good and evil have been clearly defined.

Isn’t that what war is about?” a young officer brashly asks the appalled Magistrate, “compelling a choice on someone who would not otherwise make it?” The ugliness of the question highlights the deep-rooted metaphor at the core of “Waiting for the Barbarians”. Underneath cinematographer Chris Menges’ stunning sun-blasted desert landscapes and some key performances lies a stinging rebuke of the past, a mirror to the present, and a warning of the future. It’ll be too broad and figurative for some, but I loved its willingness to trust the viewer. And the near apocalyptic final shot only adds to the title’s richness. “Waiting for the Barbarians” premieres this Friday in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Wasp Network” (2020)

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“Wasp Network” was going to be a tough movie to make for any filmmaker wanting to stick reasonably close to the facts. That’s because the actual true story is a tangled web of characters, organizations, and allegiances. For that reason French writer-director Olivier Assayas deserves a ton of credit for sticking close to the true account even though it makes his movie a little difficult to keep up with.

Without question “Wasp Network” will resonate more with those who either remember or read up on the real events that inspired it. In its own way it tells the story of the Cuban Five, a group of men sent to Miami by the Cuban government to infiltrate anti-Castro exile factions in the 1990s. Some of these groups sought simply to inspire the Cuban people to stand up against Castro’s regime. But others were terrorist outfits funded by drug money and targeting Cuba’s tourist industry. The Cuban Five were to spy on the various groups and report the findings to the Cuban government.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Taking from a 2011 Fernando Morais book “The Last Soldiers of the Cold War”, Assayas attempts to cover a lot of ground. His structure feels episodic, focusing big chunks of his film on individual players and then weaving the numerous narrative threads together in a tangled yet fascinating final act. Sometimes his storytelling seems more didactic than dramatic as it straightforwardly lays out the facts. Yet it has a palpable emotional center, putting as much emphasis on the personal sacrifices and consequences as the politics of his story.

A terrific Édgar Ramírez provides our entry point, reminding us of how good an actor he is when given quality material. He plays René González, a pilot in Havana who swipes a plane and defects to Miami leaving behind his wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and their young daughter Irma (Carolina Peraza Matamoros). René begins a new life in the States, joining a covert anti-Castro group to help other defectors boating over from Cuba. Meanwhile Olga is left alone and struggling to put food on the table. This moral haze hangs over much of the film’s first half.

The next person we meet is Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), a pilot himself and high-profile Cuban celebrity. He too defects, actually swimming from Cuba to Guantanamo Bay. Once granted asylum he moves to Miami and joins the exile group. Unlike René, Juan Pablo lives a lavish lifestyle winning over and marrying a young beauty named Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas). But she (and we) soon learn that Juan Pablo is a man of many secrets.

The third key player is Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal) who works directly with the Cuban government. He’s sent to Miami to oversee the Wasp Network’s infiltration of the militant groups. Of the three he’s the one we learn the least about. Bernal’s performance is solid, but his character could have used more attention. Ultimately it’s René who resonates most. His story packs the most personal stakes in large part thanks to Cruz’s Olga who ends up being our emotional anchor. De Armas doesn’t fare as well. Her performance is excellent, but its hard to tell if Assayas is most interested in her as a character or as eye candy.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Things ramp up when the exile group’s goals fully come into focus. We get tense scenes revealing drug smuggling from Columbia. Assayas even covers the 1997 Havana hotel bombings. Even more layers are added when the CIA gets involved and we get defectors among the defectors. It certainly makes things harder to follow and keeping a running tab on who’s who is a challenge. At the same time the craft behind the camera is evident and there are several visual choices to admire.

I can’t deny the film’s faults especially for those with no familiarity with the true events whatsoever. So take my advice – do some quick reading on the backstory before watching. It will lessen the confusion and open up a lot of what Assayas is going for. With “Wasp Network” it’s fair to say he may have bitten off more than he can chew. But I appreciate the ambition and I’m glad he took the route he did rather than playing it safe.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Wendy” (2020)

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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.

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Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

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.

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Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

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

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