Review: Wendy (Dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2020)

Wendy Darling (Devin France)

M. Night Shyamalan isn’t the only filmmaker preoccupied with getting old as Benh Zeitlin’s long awaited sophomore feature Wendy is finally released in cinemas this week.

Once there was a… not a Hushpuppy this time around but a haunted train complete with “ghost” who steals away young Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn) from the whistle stop hash house Angie Darling (Shay Walker) serves at. The two-year-old toddler Wendy (Tommie Milazzo), stands on the counter top exposing her dimpled knees, through a halo of dark curls and full-lashed baby blues drinking it all in. Thomas is intent on becoming a pirate when he grows up and gets rather indignant when he’s informed he’ll be a “mop and broom man” like most grown men in the area. He flips out, flings off his trousers and climbs aboard the train at the behest of the cloaked figure up top.

The Darlings L-R: Wendy, James (Gage Naquin) and Douglas (Gavin Naquin)

As Wendy grows (now played by Devin France), Thomas’ ‘taking’ is what informs her bedtime stories as she imagines, narrates and illustrates his adventures while the reality of his missing child poster stares out from the wall of the café. Her brothers, twins, James (Gage Naquin) and Douglas (Gavin Naquin) prefer running wild, catching turtles and generally causing mayhem. It leads to a conversation with their mother in which it becomes clear that seeking adventures away from the confines of responsibilities gets increasingly harder as one gets older – dreams simply change.

Straight on ’til morning

The next night Wendy, impulsively, decides to throw caution to the wind and climb aboard the chugging train with James and Douglas hot on her heels. She introduces herself to the phantom who, upon closer inspection, is an impish little boy wearing dreads and a tatty school blazer who goes by the name of Peter (Yashua Mack). He insists on taking 3/4 of the Darling family to his Never Land where the ocean is guarded by a large bioluminescent sea creature named Mother, Peter can control the volcano (Mother’s spirit) with his mind and, most importantly, nobody grows up. Well, almost… mostly.

Films don’t often take seven years to complete and this production which was reportedly in constant flux, has a cast of non-acting children who had to be taught how to swim, engage in sword-play and leap from great heights, and all while shooting in 16mm film. In the years that followed Beasts of the Southern Wild, he and Dan Romer picked up awards for their Brimstone & Glory score and he served as executive producer on Burning Cane, never let it be said that Zeitlin isn’t an ambitious and unconventional filmmaker. Here, he co-writes the screenplay with his sister, Eliza Zeitlin (who also serves as production designer) and once again provides the music with regular collaborator Romer. This score will, in much the same way as Beasts… bring a smile to your face and swell to the heart. Full of melancholy string-plucking, triumphant horns and waltzes on speciality instruments like the dulcimer, hurdy-gurdy, marimba and glass harmonica. The music, once again, serving as the emotional core of the film around it.

The Battle for Mañana

Its pacing does feel a little awkward at times and it’s hard to imagine small children having the attention span to sit through a film clocking in at 112 minutes but it’s not overly wordy and there’s plenty to keep older children enthralled. The Hook origin story is beautifully done and suitably grim and while some have complained it’s too dark, I would submit the source material… (only with a The City of Lost Children and Lord of the Flies edge shot through a modest and chaotic Emir Kusturica-esque lens). In Zeitlin’s Never Land – filmed on the islands of Montserrat and Antigua – childhood adventure is entangled with trauma, the inevitability of death, an active volcano and the ravages of climate change.

“To grow up is a great adventure…”

There’s an element of spontaneity to the whole affair which works well combined with the naturalistic performances from the kids who are a delight to watch. Especially Devin France who gets to experience her awfully big adventure with spirit, and more than proves that a whole film can rest on her capable shoulders. Yashua Mack is the first child of colour to portray Peter on film (just prior to Jordan A. Nash soon to be seen in the upcoming Come Away) and the first Rastafarian. Hailing from Antigua, Mack belongs to the Nyabinghi order of Rastafari who have a spiritual connection to the Earth, live at one with the earth and nature and share an ethos of remaining youthful at heart. His Peter is wonderful, full of bravado and charm – it’s easy to see why he was cast, at just five, to play Pan.

Yashua Mack as Peter

Since its inception as a stage play in 1904 and publication in 1911 as Peter and Wendy, it feels like we get a new Peter Pan adaptation every couple of years so Zeitlin’s revisionist take on Barrie’s beloved fable is refreshing and emotionally fulfilling. Some elements may not always work but there’s plenty to appreciate and be moved by. Whether in its use of magical realism which manages to convey a raw, beautiful and unique sense of wonder (and peril) led by its captivating cast or in the nostalgic yearning for a mother – a theme which becomes far more poignant given the film’s pre-credits dedication – and, of course, that gorgeous folksy-lullaby score.

Devin France and Yashua Mack in the film WENDY. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

It seems apt that the children of a pair of folklorists would make their own version of Peter Pan as adults. The film isn’t as socially resonant as Beasts… yet Wendy in spite of its collaborative nature feels like a map of, self-professed ‘Lost Boy’, Zeitlin’s mind (a little unstructured, ragtag and beautifully sound-tracked). It’s just like our eponymous Darling states: “All children grow up but some, the wild ones, the ones with the light in their eye, escape.” This film is for all of those that did.

Wendy is out in UK and Irish cinemas on 13th August