This is a repost of our review from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Wendy opens today in limited release.
Director Behn Zeitlin set a very high bar with his acclaimed debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild. While his long-awaited follow-up, Wendy, bears some of the same elements—rambunctious kids, magical realism, unknown actors, climate awareness—it feels like an even stronger picture thanks to its filmmaker’s growing ambition. Peter Pan has been done to death with varying levels of success, but Zeitlin’s adaptation overflows with imagination as it manages to deconstruct the myth while never losing its timeless energy. Wendy retains the melancholy coming-of-age story of Peter Pan, but also reframes aspects of the story to give it a more modern edge and understanding that retains the bittersweetness of growing up and then pairs that with a potent climate change metaphor. The result is constantly enchanting and beguiling.
Set in the present day, Wendy (Devin France) and her brothers James (Gavin Naquin) and Douglas (Gage Naquin) don’t want to grow up. They look at their mother (Shay Walker) and think that she gave up on her dreams when she had kids and therefore exists as a cautionary tale. When a train passes by their home, they spot a small boy riding it. They chase after him, board the train, and learn his name is Peter (Yashua Mack). They follow him to an island where they’re promised they’ll never grow old and they can play all day thanks to the benevolence of a magical underwater creature Peter calls “Mother.”. But Wendy soon learns that this island has its own rules and that there’s no escaping growing up, especially when the island’s pirates threaten Mother so they can be young again.
I suppose there are some who will find any telling of Peter Pan played out since most tellings deal with the plot beats of the Darlings being enchanted by Peter only to learn that his immaturity and selfishness fail to grasp the beauty of growing up. But that conflict of innocence and experience is beautifully realized in Zeitlin’s vision because there’s a rambunctiousness and freedom unique to his vision. By stripping away almost all of the fantasy elements (you’ll find no Tinkerbell or mermaids here), Zeitlin is able to strike to the core of childhood exuberance.
To be clear: I am the most indoor kid you will find. I resent any location that doesn’t have central heating and cooling. And yet watching these kids tear through the glorious island setting, I wanted to run outside and give a joyous howl. Yes, this is a return to Zeitlin working with unknown child actors, but he continues to get an authentic kind of performance that takes us back to that feeling of childhood.
They key difference between Wendy and Beasts is Zeitlin’s level of ambition. He’s expanded his scope and while there are similarities between the two movies, Wendy feels like the heavier lift with an more expansive vision. That’s not to dismiss Beasts, which was one of my favorite movies of the 2010s, but to explain that his new effort impressed me even more as it avoids feeling like a superficial retread by showing greater mastery of every technical aspect to provide a fresh approach to a well-worn myth.
I was constantly impressed by the level of thought and detail put into the production. For example, look at Peter’s costuming. He wears a school uniform blazer, and from a plot perspective, it informs us of his backstory. But it’s a smart costuming choice because school uniforms are an attempt to dress kids like they’re adults. Seeing Peter in his tattered blazer signals how his character defies and rejects any element of adulthood.
When the film moves into the third act, the climate change metaphor becomes glaringly apparent. Climate was also an issue in Beasts, but back in 2012, there wasn’t as much urgency. Making a movie where adults are literally trying to attack Mother Earth at the expense of children is certainly on the nose, but the time for subtlety has passed, especially as a younger generation has been conscripted into a fight to literally save their future. Zeitlin isn’t necessarily trying to conscript a new generation of climate activists, but the social commentary feels not only pointed and timely, but still relevant to the conflict of innocent childhood versus jaded adulthood.
Wendy comes off as particularly potent in an age between warring generations on who the future belongs to, but even if you want to look past the climate change aspect, Zeitlin has still crafted a magical, melancholy, and beautiful mediation on growing up and how damn hard, complicated, and incredible it can be. By pulling the Peter Pan story apart and challenging its well worn plot points, Wendy gives the story fresh life for a new generation.