Benh Zeitlin has very specific ideas about how a movie should look and feel, and what kind of story it tells. His first movie, the dreamy, impressionistic Beasts of the Southern Wild, explored themes of childhood resilience, the power of nature, adult frailties, and community. All of those ideas resurface in his sophomore effort Wendy.
As the title might imply, Wendy is the filmmaker’s nod to the Peter Pan legend. It’s a modern remix of the story of children who refuse to grow up, relocated to an uncharted island off the southern wild of America (it was shot largely in and around Louisiana bayou country), and told not from the viewpoint of Peter but from that of the little girl who, along with her two brothers, is caught up in his dream of eternal childhood.
Written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza Zeitlin, the movie stays grounded as much as possible in everyday reality—the kids’ mom runs a diner at a whistle-stop on a freight train route; they hop a slow-moving train to “fly” away—kissed with a dash of magic realism. Their take on familiar Peter Pan tropes is often deftly done, from the fate of Lost Boys who outgrow Peter’s tribe, to an eerie, unsettling origin story for Captain Hook.
The movie’s dark, moody look—with close-ups of poignant childrens’ faces by night, plunges underwater into murky depths—is interspersed with glorious vistas of pearly beaches, riotous tropical vegetation, and a steaming volcano. (Exteriors were filmed in Mexico, and on the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Montserrat.) But how well the story works may depend on whether or not you think the idea of never growing up is a good thing.
Young Wendy (Devin France) and her twin brothers Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin) have grown up in the diner run by their mama (Shay Walker). The train rattles by every night, and when they see a giggling figure scampering over the boxcar roofs one night, luring them to come away, they clamber on board. He is Peter (Yashua Mack, a native of Antigua with a head of bouncy rasta dreads), who leads them to a mysterious volcanic island far out below the train trestle where he and his tribe of unsupervised children play all day long and never age.
Nonstop play is the main attraction, but there are rules. Respect is due to “The Mother,” an underwater entity lurking beneath the bay (half-glimpsed reptilian hide, sentient eyes, and swarms of sparkling lights) that protects the children, and thrills them with the steaming volcano and random geysers bursting out of the earth. But the minute any child starts doubting the magic (Peter is always exhorting them to “Just believe in yourself and jump!”—into lagoons, off cliffs, etc.), the doubting child starts growing up.
The folly of aging is exemplified by a colony of elderly former lost boys (and girls) relegated to a miserable tent city on a rocky shore of the island. They seem to age directly from children into silver-haired seniority the minute they stop believing in Peter’s magic. These bleak and dispirited oldsters resent the children as much as the kids condemn them for the crime of growing up. It’s the eternal conflict between sedate age and reckless youth, given an environmental edge here when the grown-ups’ clueless pursuit of their own agenda endangers the “Mother”—which may be a bit more metaphor than this fanciful little movie can bear.
Zeitlin’s non-professional cast feels very authentic. But with tyrannical, unrestrained kids and cranky elders as the only role models, it’s hard for viewers to embrace either camp. The Zeitlins’ coda attempting to both celebrate the mysterious adventure of growing up and bewail the pathos of lost youth feels a bit halfhearted and unresolved. The movie rackets along on odd bits of beauty, weirdness, exuberance and regret, but the story tends to meander, and it never feels like it quite gets anywhere.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, and Gavin Naquin. Written by Benh Zeitlin and Eliza Zeitlin. Directed by Benh Zeitlin. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 112 minutes.