The words “re-interpretation” or “re-imagining” are often overused in Hollywood. They usually signal that a film is devoid of original ideas and is simply dressing up an existing story to look or sound different, but, in the end, has nothing new to say. In the case of Benh Zeitlin’s new film, Wendy, however, the approach is quite a different one. Instead of focusing on story, Zeitlin focuses on spirit, something we saw profoundly in his staggering debut in 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and we see again in Wendy, a re-imagining of Peter Pan. J. M. Barrie’s famous character and novel have been on screen in many different forms, but Zeitlin still finds a way to approach the famous story in an interesting way, even if the high concept eventually does falter.
Zeitlin came out of nowhere to take the movie world by storm with his bold and breathtaking debut about a young girl living in the bayou. Beasts of the Southern Wild was an examination of place and of the emotional life of a child and Wendy is similar in all the right ways. The emotional heart of this film is also a young girl, Wendy (Devin France), who dreams of far off places and wild adventures while living with her mother and twin brothers above the family-owned small-town diner which they run. The restaurant sits right next to railroad tracks and Wendy daydreams about the excitement the train represents. One night, Wendy sees a mysterious figure riding the top of the train, beckoning to her. Bewildered but excited, she wakes her brothers, and, in a moment of childhood abandon, they jump onto the train, giving themselves over to their daydreams.
The figure who bewitches them is Peter, a similarly aged child who leads them to another group of children on an island in the middle of the ocean. The children have turned this uninhabited and wild place into their own playground, with no rules and no adults to dampen their desire for fun and adventure. They fill their days with games and make-believe, chasing, swimming, playing and living out a wild dream that is as far from the real world as is possible. It is the embodiment of childhood fantasy and Zeitlin’s immersive and intimate style sucks you into their exuberance and it’s impossible to not be enchanted.
The theme of perpetual youth emerges, as we soon learn the island represents more than the spirit of adventure and escape. It symbolizes eternal youth, a place where you will stay young forever, as long as you believe. The familiar Peter Pan references are all here, from the boy who never grows up to the Lost Boys and eventually even the pirate ship and Captain Hook, but I found the film best when you remove it from any allegiance to the novel and take it in as its own allegory and fantasy. Zeitlin, who co-wrote the screenplay with his sister Eliza, explores the emotional journey of these children and that experience is so much more worthwhile on its own merits.
The film does work best when immersed in its own fantastical film-making, when the visual storytelling, combined with the simmering and evocative score by Dan Romer, take you back to the wonder of childhood imagination, when monsters were real and nothing was impossible. Zeitlin is fearless, filming long sequences in and underwater, allowing the island to live and breathe, ominous and beautiful. He puts his actors through the wringer, and the result is naturalistic and exhilarating. France’s performance in particular is an absolute revelation, open and inviting, sweet and sincere. All the children are good, but France is the heartbeat of this film, as she finds all the tenderness and tonal perfection without which nothing else would work.
Wendy is not only a tribute to childhood, but to nature as well. The oblique thematic references to climate change and the destruction of our environment are clear but not heavy-handed. The film does start to lose its way, however, when it tries to get too fancy and didactic with its anti-aging message, but the overall emotional impact of the film still successfully lands, despite any imperfections.