With its documentary feel and taste for the fantastical, Wendy walks in the shoes of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the 2012 film that was one of the must-sees of the year. Wendy isn’t going to fare so well, not least because that tune’s already been played.
As the title hints, it’s a variation on JM Barrie’s Peter Pan story, which writer/director Benh Zeitlin has refreshingly shifted out to Louisiana (location of Beasts), taking his version of Barrie’s kids down a social rung or two in the process.
They’re the rambunctious, happy brood who live right by the railroad tracks where their hard-pressed and careworn mother runs a diner. But life changes for imaginative, lively Wendy (Devin France) and harum-scarum twins Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin) when they’re whisked away from the freight trains and diner customers one night after spotting a boy running along the roofs of a passing train.
He’s Peter (Yashua Mack), a dreadlocked button-cute kid reminiscent of Quvenzhané Wallis, dressed in tatty clothes and a maroon blazer (a concession to the original English setting?), who has soon, Pied Piper style, taken Wendy, Peter and Douglas off with him to a volcanic island where children play and have adventures and never grow old. Well that’s the official travel-brochure spiel offered by Peter. In fact oldies do lurk, quite a few of them, a warning to Wendy and co – this is what happens to you when you lose your zest for life, your curiosity and your hope.
As with Beasts, it’s filmed documentary style, and from the start Zeitlin’s eye for the magical everday is evident – fat bubbling off frying bacon, freight trains lumbering by in the night like lost monsters – and Zeitlin’s eye for a location is intact too. Most of the film was shot on Montserrat, the island devastated by the eruption of the Soufrière volcano in 1995. Zeitlin shot in the dangerous “exclusion zone” close to the still active volcano and reports that he had no visits whatsoever from any studio suits.
Captain Hook turns up eventually, though he’s not quite a captain and it’s not quite a hook and how that all happened is, really, what the film’s about. Spoiler territory, around which I’ve erected an exclusion zone, but let’s just say that losing the joy for life is part of it.
It’s all, again, shot on 16mm film, this time by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who understands filming on the hoof almost like no other DP (he did the remarkable one-take film Victoria, for example) and it looks fantastic. Zeitlin again is down with the kids, the cameras low, and there’s the added benefit of shooting this way that everything feels as if just-encountered – we’re seeing things for the first time, fresh and new, and are as curious as, we’re told, it’s important to be.
Things get mawkish late on, as the mythical missing Mother (not the kids’ mother – she’s back at the ranch) is added to the mix, but then JM Barrie got a bit misty-eyed over families too – the story, though adjusted in all sorts of ways, remains largely true to the original vision. Quite why Barrie’s name isn’t on the credits at all is a mystery, unless someone’s hoping to corner the future copyright (it’s lapsed on Barrie’s original).
Also true to the original is the essential spookiness of never getting old. These kids are cute but they’re also frozen in a developmental moment. Beneath the layers there’s something zombie-like going on.
It’s a canny update in many ways though there’s no getting round the fact that many of the performances – most of the cast are first-timers – are terrible. Zeitlin got around the same problem in Beasts of the Southern Wild by “manufacturing” performances in the edit suite, and goes for the same approach here. But he’s dealing with more non-actors here, and the scale of the job is just beyond him. For all its many pluses, Wendy simply refuses to come to life. A case of if it’s not in the tin, no amount of editing can fix it.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021