Wendy, the newest film from Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin, takes a lot of risks. To start, it attempts to adapt a childhood fantasy into an adult allegory. As noble as that is, making a story about children more adult can be difficult, especially when you are relying on child actors to be wiser than their years and the center of attention. But despite some minor bumps in the road, Zeitlin manages to pull Wendy off, offering an intriguing tale of innocence lost and perspective gained.
Taking the psychological concept of Peter Pan Syndrome to the next level, Wendy tells the story of the titular preteen heroine (Devin France) hoping and wishing to break out of the doldrums of childhood aimlessness. Living upstairs from her mother’s diner next to a busy railroad track, Wendy and her two brothers Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin) decide, on the whim, to run away from home and hop on a train occupied by a tiny mysterious figure simply known as Peter.
Peter takes the children to a magical island where a profound sea creature called Mother keeps the “lost boys” young forever. However, the island has rules and those who disobey them suffer from the greatest consequence of all: growing up. It is between the worlds of Peter and the old and weary that Wendy must find her place in the world. Will she forsake her mother and stay young forever or find the value of growing old?
As mentioned before, the biggest risk of adult entertainment cast predominately with children is finding the right child actors to fit the role. Young, cherubic France is wonderfully cast as Wendy and acts as a perfect surrogate for the audience. Appearing in her first role in anything, France’s literal fresh face provides the audience with a sense of wonder. As Wendy discovers her new world, we discover a new actress. It is either brilliant casting or dumb luck (or maybe both) but giving the first time starlet control of an entire film is a daring risk that pays off.
Equally as intriguing is Peter himself, young Guatemalan actor Yashua Mack, also making his feature film debut. Since Wendy deals with the positives and negatives of remaining forever young, Peter is not an out-and-out hero. In fact, he at times becomes menacing and unpredictable and young Mack expertly shifts into both gears. He can be adorably cute and inspirational in one scene yet frighteningly adamant and headstrong in the next. Wendy’s ability to make Peter both a hero and villain in the same narrative is impressive to see come to life.
Though Wendy’s biggest coups are in the acting department, its storytelling is the risk that doesn’t fully pay off. Director Zeitlin, who also co-wrote the script with his sister/production designer Eliza Zeitlin, does a notable job, as mentioned above, with making Peter a conflicting figure. But Wendy’s attempt to provide surrealist fantasy and hard-edged realism together sometimes provides drastic tonal shifts. While the filmmaking craft itself is never in doubt, as Zeitlin and director of photography Sturla Brandth Grøvlen provide lush, beautiful landscapes and guerrilla, “on-the-ground” style cinematography with consistency, it is more the twist and turns of narrative inconsistency that can keep the audience at bay.
For when Wendy gets dark, it gets very dark. And there is, in concept, no problem with this. But in delivery, Zeitlin drags his audience to such different peaks and valleys that it can sometimes ruin the philosophical core of what the script is trying to say. We know that staying young forever is not the ideal way to live but we also know that getting old and bitter isn’t either. It is that happy medium where we see youth for what it was and aging for what it can be that makes us gloriously human. Wendy successfully proves that overall but takes a rocky road to get there. Fifteen minutes in childhood wonder is interrupted by thirty minutes of apocalyptic doom showing the decay of an old, bitter mind. It can be a lot to take in.
But, in the end, this unpredictable approach should be appreciated. At no point in the proceedings did I have any clue how anything was going to end up and that is a rarity in storytelling. Yes, it is based on Peter Pan but this film exists as a deconstruction of its mythos, and the psychological impression it makes on the young, not as an out-and-out adaptation of the core story. Though tonally difficult, Wendy offers moments of philosophical brilliance that should move the audience to the realm of appreciation.
Wendy is in select theaters now.