Eight years after premiering his debut feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” director Benh Zeitlin finally returns with his second film, “Wendy.”
A modernized retelling of the story of Peter Pan, Zeitlin sets the action not in Victorian London, but somewhere along the eastern seaboard in a crumbling American town. Instead of flying off toward the second star to the right, Neverland is an island accessible by train and boat.
The story starts when Wendy is a curious toddler under her mother’s feet in the family restaurant by the railroad tracks. She watches one of the local boys hop on a train and run away and even at the age of two, the incident makes an impact on the watchful girl. Things pick up a few years later when Wendy, now around 10, dreams of more than waiting tables and watching trains rumble past.
It’s hard to make a pronouncement about Zeitlin’s career as a director based on just two films. But he is on his way to becoming one of the best visual storytellers around. He has a Terrence Malick-like gift of turning beautiful images into powerful, emotional experiences. And that’s exactly what he does with his new Peter Pan tale. Capturing the excitement and fears of unsupervised children far removed from civilization, sometimes “Wendy” feels more like a documentary than a narrative. Sprinkle in a bit of magic and this becomes an experience that must be felt, more than a film that must be watched.
Devin France is the remarkable young actress who leads this cast of misfits and adventurers. Like Quvenzhané Wallis before her, Zeitlin has a knack for picking out and working with talented young kids and giving them room to breathe in their roles. Wendy possesses a wandering spirit, longing to see what’s out there in the world. At such a young age, she may not know what she wants in life, but she knows she wants more than the Darlings’ family cafe can offer. She listens to her mother’s (Shay Walker) stories of running away out west in her youth and dreams of finding her own stories.
Wendy’s rowdy twin brothers Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin) are typical big brothers. They, too, are always up for adventures, but have the mistaken impression that they need to protect their little sister. So when she follows a mysterious boy onto a passing train, they join her not for the fun of it, but to keep her safe.
That spontaneous decision leads them to an unexpected place where time moves much differently and the Mother watches over all. They get to know Peter (Yashua Mack), a boy from the Caribbean who is both wise beyond his years and naive to the outside world. They reunite with Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn), the boy who vanished from their town years before. They laugh and play and learn all about the places they aren’t allowed to go in their tropical haven. There are good times and bad ones and along the way, some children know it’s time to grow up, while others refuse.
There is a clear narrative that follows much of the trajectory of the traditional Peter Pan tale. Magic and fantasy dance together, but with the magical realism Zeitlin imbues into his work. One can’t help but wish to pay a visit to this island and run and play all day and sleep in trees and swim through underwater caverns. But, of course, some children just don’t want to play all day and Peter can’t compel anyone to stay longer than they desire. Zeitlin’s story balances both sides: those who never want to grow up and usually don’t, with those who sense the inevitability of it and accept it. Through it all, Wendy ties the story together with a voice over that conveys the thoughts of a bright girl on the verge of growing up sooner than she wants to, and Devin France does great work.
Because Zeitlin’s work is so much more visual than other filmmakers, there are large sections of simply watching. There isn’t much dialogue, there’s not a lot to concentrate on. It’s an exercise in observation. This is all complemented by a stunning original score from Dan Romer. The composer crafts a glorious musical soundscape that captures the majesty of youth in big and small moments. It is Romer’s best work so far, and we can only hope it will still be remembered later in the year.
“Wendy” is a rare cinematic experience that simply asks you to be still and let it wash over you like lapping waves on the shore. Some won’t want to. But others, like Wendy Darling tells us, will seize the opportunity to escape.