“Wendy” is director Benh Zeitlin’s long-awaited follow-up to his Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and like that film, it’s presented from a kid’s perspective. It’s in keeping with his intense empathy for children clumsily negotiating the push-pull of adolescence. When do you let go of mom’s hand and when do you reach for it? Zeitlin offers no definitive answers in taking a leap of faith with a reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s classic “Peter Pan,” turning the tables on the eternal eternal-youth tale by putting the focus squarely on Wendy.
As played by superb newcomer Devin France, Wendy is introduced as a curly-haired toddler, bouncing around a claustrophobic Louisiana diner. Her elephantine baby blues never show fear, even when the dishes rattle and the foundation shakes in the wake of freight trains whirling by so close you can reach out and touch them - or even hop one. The trains are a vehicle to freedom, especially for her tiny cousin, Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn), who swaps a preordained future as the diner’s “mop-and-broom man” for loftier aspirations as - a pirate.
Years later, Thomas’ disappearance affects Wendy so deeply she and her twin brothers, Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin), follow his lead in seeking greener pastures beyond their dream-crushing, greasy-spoon life in a cramped apartment above the backwater diner. “All the way to the edge of the world,” they exclaim, as they embark for a land where no one ages and time stands still.
That place, of course, is Neverland, which Zeitlin presents as a mysterious island populated by children experiencing what they crave most: freedom, happiness and a touch of danger. They yell as loud as they want, dive into the mud, swing on a rope and splash in the ocean. It’s an adolescent utopia, absent Xboxs and iPhones. Even Wendy - the responsible, caring and dutiful protagonist - eagerly drinks the Kool-Aid Mr. Pan (a terrific Yashua Mack) is serving. But when things get real, she seeks safety and security, drawing on her love for her mom (Shay Walker) to guide her home.
Zeitlin, who co-wrote the script with his younger sister, Eliza, is fully in with his surrealistic approach, meaning there’s very little in the way of narrative. It’s all style and it grows tedious and convoluted. In fact, the most gut-punching moment comes as the credits roll, when Zeitlin dedicates his movie to Devin’s mother, Kassie Leah France, who died last year.
Zeitlin has an unfortunate predilection for voiceover and jumpy camerawork that generates more headaches than wonder. There are also random volcanic explosions and a huge glowing fish known as “Mother.” The plot is so muddled it becomes fitful to watch, even with the visually stunning landscapes. It also detracts from the bigger ideas Zeitlin spins on coming of age, the loss of innocence and the power of motherhood - interesting ideas he can’t bring together. In the end, you have no choice but to give his “Peter” a pan.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage and Gavin Naquin.
(PG-13 for brief violent/bloody images.)