In one of the remarkably beautiful moments in Wendy, a movie that wants to consist of nothing but remarkably beautiful moments, a young girl dives into the ocean and stumbles on an otherworldly vision. Into the frame swims an enormous fish, as large as a whale and as translucent as a ghost, with a bioluminescent glow in her belly and a name, Mother, given to her by the children who live on the ground above. She is their guardian and sustainer, the breathing, swimming metaphor for the fountain of youth who ensures that all who partake of her protective spirit will never grow up. At times you may suspect that Mother’s spell has also fallen on the writer-director Benh Zeitlin, the thirty-seven-year-old vendor of childlike wonderment behind this sometimes astonishing, ultimately weary movie. The previously mentioned girl is Wendy (a remarkable find in Devin France), and the story she’s in, as you may have guessed, is “Peter Pan,” but taken through an American arthouse viewpoint. Amid a wildly galivanting camera and mighty blasts of music, here can be found a lush island at the edge of the world, a community of lost children, a rust-covered pirate boat and a Captain Hook, though he wields his makeshift extremity with less malevolence than sorrow.
Yet, there is no crocodile, which may surprise those you saw Zeitlin’s debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s been eight years since that movie took Sundance by storm, earned four Oscar nominations and, for many, heralded the arrival of a new cinematic voice. The thing is, the long-gestating Wendy arrives with no signs of creative maturation for Zeitlin. From its swelling, surging score (by Dan Romer and Zeitlin himself) to its cast of nonprofessional actors to the child’s-eye vantage of its story and camerawork, the film, in fairly large parts, can come off like Beasts Redux, just vaguely molded into the shape of J.M. Barrie’s classic. It suggests that Zeitlin, throwing more handfuls of fairy dust over an impoverished American South, is something of a lost boy himself. At the same time, there is nonetheless still something admirable and affecting about Zeitlin’s desire to recapture lightning in the same aesthetic bottle. He is hardly the first filmmaker to face the mixed blessing of a euphoric Sundance reception, and to ponder his next move in an industry where the thrill of discovery often gives way to the letdown of compromise. And he has answered that challenge, years later, with a film that feels less like a bold step forward than a stubborn reassertion of identity.
Once again, like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Louisiana comes into focus in a rush of sweaty imagery in Wendy. We open in a crowded diner where toddler Wendy (Tommie Lynn Milazzo), the manager’s daughter, registers every sight and sound: the bacon sizzling on the grill, the customer’s laughing, the large freight trains rumbling past every few minutes. And we briefly see what she sees when she peers out the window: a young boy (Yashua Mack), whom they don’t know yet is Peter, running along the top of a moving train. It will be a few years before Wendy and her rambunctious twin brothers, Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin), see Peter again on the train one night. Restless and hungry for adventure, they impulsively follow after him and climb aboard. And so they’re on their way to the movie’s version of Neverland, not with a sprinkle of pixie dust, but atop a ramshackle railway that nonetheless manages to mimic the glory of human flight.
Much of the pleasure of Wendy lies in unpacking its odd imaginative logic, the more “grounded” equivalents it finds for the fantasy elements that appear in Barrie’s original story. Tinker Bell may be absent, but Zeitlin invests heavily in his own practical magic. The scrappy, inventive production design (from Zeitlin’s sister, Eliza, whom also wrote the screenplay with him) does a lot of the heavy lifting, as does the locations: Neverland is played, quite gorgeously, by the Caribbean island of Montserrat, home to an active volcano that looms over lush green forests and a gorgeous blue sea. It also becomes a second home for the Darling kids, joining Peter and his comrades in a child’s innocent paradise. And watching all the kids rummage through the island, you get a clear sense why it took Zeitlin so long to finish Wendy. Shot on (alluring) 16mm by natural light in a very tough location with a bunch of kids with no acting experience, the film doubles down on the flagrantly independent means and spirit of its predecessor; it’s earthier and much less polished than your average Peter Pan.
And all the scrappy lyricism that appears has obvious influence and owes a lot to the work of Terrence Malick. But Zeitlin’s formalism is more cheerful and more chaotic than Malick’s, in part because his subject is the cheery wonder of childhood and the difficulty of letting it go. But the irony of it all is that particular feeling, that state of grace turns out to be just as difficult to sustain over two hours of screen time as it is in real life. A film that comes to mind when tackling this sort of feeling is Spike Jonze’s hauntingly fantastic 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are, which somehow transformed the difficulty of growing up into a virtue, by reminding us that childhood is actually more than just a sustained rebel yell. Wendy attempts a similar richness of feeling — it has its passages of regret and melancholy — but even these quieter passages are blunted, and finally overwhelmed, by the clamor and monotony of the filmmaking and script: It comes with thin characterizations, a flimsy narrative frame, and Zeitlin’s odd tendency to mistake cliché for poetry.
“You have to trust me!” “Doubt yourself and you’re old already!” These and other forceful proclamations account for what seems to be the entirety of Peter’s dialogue, recasting this figure of carefree glee as something of a pint-sized dictator. The filmmakers have said that they cast Mack, a young performer from Antigua, for reasons of local authenticity. But the mix of authenticity and fantasy can make for some troublesome grounds, and Wendy can get pretty close and a little to bold, for me personally, with the stereotype of the magical black man, the stock character who props up and mystically empowers the story’s white protagonists. (Which now makes me want to reevaluate Beasts of the Southern Wild a little bit, as some thought that film dangerously presented its characters as noble savages, another stock character form.)
But, I would also say though, that this film does seem to be aware of the stereotype, which I suspect that the filmmakers might be using to complicate and subvert: Peter is no one-dimensional saint, at least, and his magic turns out to be anything but foolproof. But he is also, pointedly, not the hero of this story. Wendy means to reclaim its title character — who’s usually depicted as the well-mannered, responsible mope of the Neverland bunch — as her own restless, invincible spirit, something that France conveys with a pair of piercing eyes that take everything in with an intensity that never seems cloying. You can reject much of the banality swirling around her, but somehow watching her never grows old. With its enchanting score and occasional beautiful moment withstanding, Wendy still remains a pretty stale take on the material: It soars every once and again, but often stumbles. Never truly taking flight.