Directed by Benh Zeitlin.
Starring Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn, Shay Walker, Tommie Lynn Milazzo, and Stephanie Lynn Wilson.
Lost on a mysterious island where aging and time have come unglued, Wendy must fight to save her family, her freedom, and the joyous spirit of youth from the deadly peril of growing up.
Benh Zeitlin’s follow up to 2013’s Beasts of the Southern Wild poetically examines themes of aging and how to stay young. With a ragtag assemblage of kids portraying the excitement and delights of freedom in the wild, the film shares similar themes to his break-out hit.
Deploying a magical-realist style, and a fine understanding of the textures and colours of the Caribbean locations used in filming, Wendy is a visual delight. It sounds great too, with a compelling score delivered by Dan Romer, reuniting with Zeitlin after working together on Beasts.
Taking a liberal helping of the fundamentals of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan story, Zeitlin, with a screenplay co-written with sister Eliza, explores the magic of adventure from a child’s point of view. In the case of the production, this is done quite literally, with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (known for his outstanding work on 2015’s one-take thriller Victoria) employing hand-held cameras shooting scenes at the child actors eye-level.
The freedom of roaming around the glorious landscape is a pleasure to behold, and it is brought out brilliantly by the incredibly assured cast. Using a cast of young non-actors as he did with Beasts, and placing them on fantastic sea-swept islands, Zeitlin was well aware of the risks he was taking with the feature.
It is positive to see that the shoot came away with such positive results. While the look and beauty of the film’s visual content is unquestionable, the plot is on occasion as similarly wild as the kids themselves. Despite the core themes of combating the aging process and trying to keep a joie de vivre being well brought out by scenes of play and dance, the main story lacks some momentum and focus. But this is an altogether emotive and artistic experience, and many viewers will be happy to allow the freedom of expression to wash over them.
This transportive experience takes the movie away from a completely set story. The ideas and feelings that the Zeitlins are concerned with here hark back to the sort of creative games children play. Stories are not fixed, and Wendy has a strong mythological influence that shapes the anarchic narrative.
But rather than being a cartoonish fairy tale of the more typical Disney variety, Wendy is more concerned with the inner life of the players. How they – and humanity itself – fits into the sprawling world of the island and the sheer power and scale of nature is such a sizable question that it derails a straightforward approach.
How well this works for an audience will depend on how much time they have for ethereal and metaphysical Terrence Malick-like wondering. I personally took well to the picture, and saw much of the grounding of the film as being how children experience the world.
Indeed, the Zeitlins have done a marvellous job of recalling the kind of feeling we all had as kids when exploring. Not everything makes sense, and nor should it. Sometimes learning and discovering is about acceptance as much as it is about proving things.
Most of the film is held together via the determined energy and purpose of the titular character (played with real conviction by Devin France). Wendy has spent much of her young life wondering about the world beyond the Louisiana diner where she helps out her mother with cleaning duties and looking after her wild younger brothers.
The reality of work and growing older in one place is one day illustrated by the disappearance of Thomas, Wendy’s cousin. On contemplating the tired patrons and hard work of the diner he declares that he “ain’t gonna be no mop and broom man,” before running out into the night and jumping onto a moving train.
Years pass, and Wendy continues to dream of a different world. When she and her twin brothers are visited by the mysterious figure of Peter (Yashua Mack impressing with intense mischief), she decides to follow the forever-young imp onto a speeding interstate train. After a dramatic travel sequence, the kids find themselves on Peter’s island. From there, the film veers off into a kind of free-flowing poetic rhapsody about the importance of play, and the workings of mother nature.
There is also an imaginative origin story for Pan’s nemesis Hook. While this last is emblematic of the playful tone of the ‘reimagining’ of Barrie’s story, it does provide a pleasing creative power.
The portrayal of nature, embodied in a sub-aquatic creature known as ‘Mother’, is a wholly new addition to the Peter Pan story. With this entity, Zeitlin brings in a strong ecological message; that is, if we don’t look after nature and fail to respect its resources, we’re all in trouble.
This, plus the emotive punch of the closing sequences, place the film in a category of curious and unique artistry. A passion project then, yes, but one with much going for it in beguiling power.
Wendy will be released in UK and Irish cinemas on August 13th.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance writer and film critic.