Producers: Becky Glupczynski, Dan Janvey, Paul Mezey and Josh Penn Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenplay: Benh Zeitlin and Eliza Zeitlin Cast: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn, Romyri Ross, Lowell Landes, Kevin Pugh and Shay Walker Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Benh Zeitlin’s follow-up to his succès d’estime “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has been described as “Peter Pan” told from the perspective of Wendy, but to say that underestimates its eccentricity: Zeitlin gives this film the same sort of dreamlike quality as the earlier one, retelling J.M. Barrie’s tale of the lad who never grows up in a hallucinatory way that many will find rather baffling and off-putting.
At the core, “Wendy,” like its source, is a rumination on what it means to grow old and lose the exuberance of youth. But it’s starts not in London but in a small town in the American south, where Wendy (Devin France) lives with her mother Angela (Shay Walker), a waitress in a run-down diner, and twin brothers Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin). One night as the train goes by, she sees a boy (Yashusa Mack) atop one of its cars, and hops the train to join him. Her brothers do likewise, and the boy, named Peter of course, takes them to a volcanic island where he leads a pack of similarly rootless children.
Peter has powers over nature—he can make the volcano rumble on cue, for example—and the band’s ties to the environment are embodied in his attachment to a huge sea creature (a sort of equivalent for Barrie’s crocodile) that can emit luminescent spurts; he calls it Mother. In an encounter with it, Douglas disappears, and in trying to save him James’s hand begins to age. He cuts it off, and Wendy seeks help for him from an old man (Lowell Landes).
For the “lost children” are not alone on the island. There is also a group of elderly men and women living sad lives beside a wrecked dock. Wendy and James go there, and though she tries to revive their spirits by urging them to embrace love and joy, the result is that James begin to age fully: he will eventually emerge as the sour, older version of himself (Kevin Pugh), and fashioning a crude hook for his lost hand, he leads his group in refurbishing a boat to hunt down Mother—by killing the beast, he suggests, they can all be restored.
That leads to a desperate attempt by Peter, Wendy and the other children to save the creature, and ultimately to a swordfight between Peter and the aged James.
To be quite honest, the second half of “Wendy” may strike many as well-nigh incomprehensible (the first being merely confusing), given that Zeitlin is far more concerned with mood than narrative clarity. But it must be said that, as in “Beasts,” he and his colleagues—production designer Eliza Zeitlin, with whom he wrote the script, and cinematographer Sturia Brandth Grovlen—create some striking images, even if the special-effects Mother has a decidedly homemade look.
But that’s characteristic of the entire film. The production design is indeed impressive but in a ragged way, and the cinematography is often entrancing, but often shaky and spasmodic in the hand-held fashion. And the editing by Alfonso Gonçalves and Scott Cummings is the very opposite of smooth. The acting follows suit. France is strong, and the Naquin brothers hold their own, but Mack, though an interesting choice simply in terms of appearance, is amateurish, and the oldsters equally so.
Recent years have seen other attempts to toy with the Peter Pan story—Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” (1991), the SyFy Channel’s “Neverland” miniseries (2011) and Joe Wright’s big-budget “Pan” (2015), to name but a few. Zeitlin’s isn’t as misguided as most of them have been, but it takes the prize for pretentious weirdness, though it very often has a bleary beauty.