WENDY (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13

(for brief violent/bloody images and some language)
Released: February 28, 2020 limited; March 13 wide
Runtime: 112 minutes
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn, Romyri Ross, Shay Walker

Time will inevitably age the body, but it need not the soul.

That’s the more mature, life-lived perspective of Wendy, the inspired modern-day re-imagining of the Peter Pan myth by writer/director Benh Zeitlin, one that puts the classic story’s heroine front-and-center. If J.M. Barrie’s original tale warned us not to lose our innocence, then Zeitlin’s version cedes that the loss is inevitable – but that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and even something that presents its own gifts and treasures (albeit hard-earned).

Wendy is the long-awaited follow-up to Zeitlin’s heralded 2012 debut Beasts of the Southern Wild, a low-budget miracle that fused gritty realism with wondrous surrealism, in a fable about a little orphaned girl in the Louisiana Delta whose gulf-side community is crushed by the effects of poverty and climate change. It was an impressive feat that garnered Zeitlin a surprising Best Director Oscar nomination.

Zeitlin now takes on Barrie’s iconic source material set in London from well over a century ago, but the resourceful lo-fi filmmaker transforms it into another contemporary (yet still timeless) bayou fantasia. Wendy carries all of Zeitlin’s auteur signatures, i.e. shaky-cam naturalism shot on grainy 16mm film that somehow frames real, ramshackle surroundings (both desolate and exotic) into something otherworldly. An immersive soundscape sure helps (another aesthetic virtue carried over from Beasts as well).

Rather than smitten by an adolescent crush for the boy fairy who’ll never grow up (played here by dreadlocked African-American Yashua Mack), this Wendy has a passion for breaking free from the dilapidated squalor of the Deep South backwoods where she lives. Her one refuge is home, where she and her older twin brothers, Douglas and James, may not have much – but they do have a loving mother.

Even so, Peter’s siren call of eternal youth whisks Wendy and her brothers away to his Neverland (via train rather than flight), a tropical getaway teeming and steaming with life that was filmed on Hell’s Gate Island in the Caribbean. There, they meet the Lost Boys (and Girls) who make up Peter’s carefree band and, in time, encounter the aging pirates who lurk just outside their sanctuary.

As a basic construct, yes, this is the Peter Pan fable, but Zeitlin’s intriguing spin is creatively inventive (and increasingly grim) in the details. Boldly envisioned, it takes a decidedly dark turn about halfway through, shifting starkly away from the illusion of perpetual paradise to the decaying, violent mortality beyond, one that can’t be escaped from forever. (To put a fine point on it, this Peter Pan story is for adults, not kids, both in content and contemplation.)

Zeitlin collaborates with a cast of newcomers, from the very young to the very old, wielding his own specific magic with a spell conjured from scripted design and raw improvisation. He pulls heartfelt, impassioned performances from unpolished amateurs, in an ensemble anchored by Devin France. As Wendy, she is a real discovery; her face and spirit is as innocent and eager yet world-weary as the ideas and struggles that Zeitlin’s material ponders.

A Captain Hook does emerge here (his origin and arc being a quintessential example of how ingenious Zeitlin’s vision is), but the real villain is cynical self-preservation. It’s the kind that emerges when innocence is completely lost, believing an insidious lie that life is reduced to a ruthless zero-sum Darwinian journey. It’s a cynicism that destroys not only our humanity but also our earth.

But the message of Wendy isn’t dour; it’s hopeful, recognizing that the new discoveries of age are as rich as the cherished ones from youth that we can’t take with us, and that to deny either (whether in the arrogance of youth, or in the regrets of age) is to plunder and pillage the very treasures that each season of life offers.

Age is something we confront, fight, and even resist. That’s natural, and even admirable, but age need not be our enemy. The rewards of its experiences (like parenthood) and its wisdom (that’s it’s okay for dreams to change) can be just as magical.

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