With childlike and childish ‘Wendy,’ Benh Zeitlin hits a sophomore slump

Growing pains: Devin France and Yashua Mack in Wendy.
Growing pains: Devin France and Yashua Mack in Wendy. Searchlight Pictures

Benh Zeitlin is the type of kid I wish I had grown up with; the writer-director has a way of fashioning fantasy from ordinary childhoods.

He did it in 2012 with Beasts of the Southern Wild, and he's done it again with Wendy, an ambitious reinterpretation of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. But while Beasts mixed Southern mythology, environmental allegory, and coming-of-age storytelling into a magical cinematic gumbo, Wendy's similar ingredients never congeal, leaving us with a visually intriguing but tiresome tale that disappoints its fantastical premise.

Wendy Darling (newcomer Devin France) is a young girl growing up above a café adjacent to train tracks in rural Louisiana. Each day, while her mom (Shay Walker) slings hash for customers, she and her twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naquin) watch the locomotives carry passengers to distant lands they will never see.

"Your life will go by," Wendy fears, "and nothing will ever happen."

But one day something does happen, and then some: A mysterious lad named, of course, Peter (Yashua Mack) whisks Wendy and her brothers away to Zeitlin's version of Neverland. (It is, in reality, Montserrat, and Zeitlin takes full advantage of the Caribbean territory's beauty.)

Once there, the siblings discover a land where children never age — unless they lose someone they love. If that tragedy befalls them, they are cast off to a bleak part of the island, seemingly at war with their lost innocence and a mysterious creature referred to in vague metaphorical terms as "mother." Viewed literally, the animal is an aquatic version of the aurochs from Beasts. But Zeitlin undoubtedly views mother as the heart of his kingdom, something akin to a soul. Yet, as with all elements of the movie, this metaphor is not explored with enough narrative clarity or power.

As with Beasts, Zeitlin's new film is packed with life lessons, the most prominent being Wendy's call to "Remember the voice in your head, the one that said, 'Sneak away into the night.'" But she also tells us to "never slow down, never think twice." And, regrettably, that's just what the film itself does, as its nausea-inducing camera combines with the cacophonous sound design to overwhelm the story's inherent intelligence. In Beasts, similar themes interacted naturally and pleasingly, but in Wendy they too often resemble a conductor-less orchestra. And with an undeveloped and unengaging script that too often relies on collections of quotes and inane utterances of "what the hell!" instead of mature dialogue, Wendy is a noble but largely wasted effort. (But look for big things from little France in the future.)

It took Zeitlin eight years to release this follow-up to Beasts, and I wouldn't be surprised if he thought about this film every second of those eight years. But just like Terry Gilliam and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Zeitlin appears to have gotten lost in his passion project. Let's hope this Peter Pan-like director can reclaim his pixie dust in time for his third film.

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