Behn Zeitlin’s new film “Wendy” attempts a raw and rough variation of that famous fantasy written by J.M. Barrie, and I admire that to some degree despite being frequently dissatisfied with the overall result. While it is often quite impressive for its technical aspects, the movie is unfortunately uneven and sloppy in terms of story and characters, and I became more aware of its technical aspects instead of more emotionally engaged in its story and characters during my viewing.
During its opening scene, the movie promptly establishes its vivid rural Southern background. As it closely observes how a single mother named Angela Darling (Shay Walker, who brings enough warmth and sensitivity to her thankless role) runs a shabby diner located right next to a railroad line, we gradually become immersed in the world inhabited by her and other people including her little baby daughter, and then there comes a little surprise for us when a small boy runs away from the spot right after called by some little figure on the top of a passing train.
Several years later, things remain pretty much same in the daily life of Angela and her daughter Wendy (Devin France). When another day of theirs is over, Angela spends some time with Wendy and her older twin brothers Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), and the affection between Angela and her children is evident as she tells them about her old wild life and how she gave it up for raising her children later.
Like her mother in the past, Wendy has aspired to get away from her small environment and then experience new stuffs out there, and, what do you know, there comes an opportunity for not only her but also her brothers in the middle of one night. Somebody on a passing train calls her from the outside, and that figure in question turns out to be the same one who took that boy away during the opening scene. Without any hesitation, Wendy quickly gets out of the house and then climbs on the passing train, and so do her brothers.
While the train keeps going, Wendy and her brothers get to know their little mysterious new friend, who can be regarded as a rural Southern version of Peter Pan. Although he cannot fly, this little dude has resided in some remote island located somewhere in the middle of the sea (The movie was mainly shot in Monteserrat, an island of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean Sea, by the way), and Wendy and her brothers soon find themselves on a little boat sailing toward that island.
Although it does not look that fantastic compared to whatever you can imagine from Barrie’s story, the island in the film has its own natural awe and wonder, and Zeitlin and his cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen provide us a number of breathtaking landscape shots to behold. While they surely look rough as captured on 16mm film, they also feel palpable with considerable verisimilitude, and Zeitlin and his crew members deserve to be commended for constantly filling the screen with realistic mood and details to be appreciated.
Once its new background is fully established, the movie goes for some magic as expected. At one point, Wendy comes to have a chance for encountering the source of magic which supposedly keeps her new friend and several other kids in the island young forever, and this supernatural moment reminds me a lot of a similarly magical moment around the end of Zeitlin’s previous film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012), which was incidentally one of the best films of 2012 in my inconsequential opinion.
However, the screenplay by Zeitlin and his co-writer Eliza Zeitlin, who also handled the production design of the film, begins to stumble when it tries to explore the less wondrous side of the island, which eventually comes to function as the main conflict in the story. After a sudden plot turn which feels too contrived, there comes a gruesome moment of physical mutilation, and this is so jarring that the movie never recovers while unfortunately turned into something closer to “Lord of the Flies” instead of Barrie’s tale. Although there is some poignancy as Wendy comes to have an important life lesson along with her new friend around the end of the story, the finale is disappointing as resolving the conflict too easily, and the following ending lacks bittersweet emotional impact it is supposed to deliver.
Anyway, Zeitlin draws good performances from his young main cast members. While Devin France’s earnest performance holds the center well, Yashua Mack complements France well on the whole, though his oddly sullen performance seems to be channeling “Beasts of No Nation” (2015) more than Barrie’s tale. In case of the other young cast members including Ahmed Cage, Krzysztof Meyn, and Gavin and Gage Naquin, they are also fine in their unadorned appearance, and it is a shame that, just like a number of adult characters at the fringe of the story, their characters are mostly underdeveloped as being no more than plot elements.
In conclusion, “Wendy” is an interesting but ultimately flawed re-imagination of Barrie’s tale, and it is a letdown compared to “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, which is more successful in generating magic realism on the screen in addition to being better in terms of storytelling and characterization. While Zeitlin is still a good filmmaker who does know how to establish mood and details on the screen, he somehow fails here to our disappointment, and I can only wish that he will soon bounce from this misfire.