Eight years ago, writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival like lighting in a bottle. Beats of the Southern Wild virtually came out of nowhere and was met with a rapturous reception, winning the festival’s Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. It went on to sweep critics awards Breakthrough Director and Actor (for then-newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) prize categories, culminating in four Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Wallis and a surprise Best Director nomination for Zeitlin. A new, distinct auteur had arrived.
What has he been up to since? That’s been a question fresh on the minds of many since his tremendous breakout success with Beasts. In addition to executive produced a handful of independent films, including 2019’s Burning Cane and Give Me Liberty, Zeitlin’s been laboriously working on his ambitious sophomore feature film, Wendy.
Inspired by James Matthew Barrie’s story “Peter Pan,” Wendy was shot across several countries from the mountainous shores of Montserrat, to the balmy bayous of Louisiana. We first find Wendy (Devin France) as a toddler hanging out at the railroad-side diner with her older twin brothers James (Gavin Naquin) and Douglass (Gage Naquin). Their mother, waitress Angela (Shay Walker), serves a crowd of older regulars who tease the kids, saying one day they’ll all grow up to work at the diner and serve them. This is James’s worst nightmare. He quietly resolves to himself that he’ll never grow old. Later, Wendy watches the night train pass outside her bedroom window and sees a young boy, Peter (Yashua Mack), sneak onto a boxcar and off into the night. Years later, Peter remains missing and Wendy’s grown, as has her restless fascination with his disappearance and her yearning to flee her small town to seek adventure beyond the bayou. One night, Wendy watches the night train pass again, spotting the boy who disappeared. She spontaneously chases after him, leaping onto the train, followed by concerned James and Douglass. The train barrels off into the abyss, transporting the siblings and Peter to Neverland and onto a raucous adventure, fighting to remain young forever.
During the film’s premiere Q&A, Zeitlin said his fear of aging and desire to stay young motivated him to tackle the “Peter Pan” story. With Wendy, he set out to craft a visceral story that thrusts viewers right into the action and danger his young heroes are experiencing. In that technical sense, he was successful. Wendy is an enveloping film that traffics in the same visual vocabulary of Beasts, with hyper editing, poetic voice-over narration, and insatiable camerawork. These aesthetics felt kinetic and groundbreaking in 2012, but now in 2020, they’re dated. Precious, even.
Once the children arrive to Neverland, Wendy becomes difficult to follow and, worse, incredibly dull. Plot points arise haphazardly due to an extreme lack of character development and all connections to Barrie’s story felt cheap — like stunt casting cameos. Zeitlin and his team deserve kudos for their ambition, as shooting with children is difficult, but shooting with children in moving trains, treacherous caves, and rusted, sinking ships is downright Herculean. However impressive the brass technical achievements may be, they often feel like window dressing masking the absence of story. There’s no avoiding the fact that the vast majority of Wendy features a bunch of kids aimlessly running around screaming fanciful nonsense at one another. This quickly becomes repetitive and grating. I believe there’s a special place in hell for those who criticize child actors, but suffice it to say, the talent didn’t elevate the material. This is partially due to imbalanced sound mixing, which often privileges Dan Romer’s triumphant, folksy musical score over the kids’ dialogue clarity.
Following Wendy, Peter and the others gallivant around the island reminded me of how bored I felt when my childhood friend made me watch him play Grand Theft Auto. I could tell he was having a grand time, fleeing the cops and running people over in stolen cars. My friend wanted me to enjoy watching him enjoy himself, but I felt nothing. Similarly here with Wendy, it felt like Zeitlin desperately wants us to have fun watching him and the kids have fun, which naturally makes the whole ordeal feel like an overwrought chore. The last act of Wendy is a complete slog to get through.
Watching Wendy, I was reminded of another recent adaptation of a beloved story, writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Like “Peter Pan,” Louisa May Alcott’s book is a seminal text on the end of adolescence, but the two diverge on the prospect of getting older. Whereas Jo Marsh couldn’t grow up fast enough, Peter abhors the prospect of aging — and in Zeitlin’s version, Wendy does, too. Gerwig’s adaptation disassembles the familiar narrative we’ve all grown accustomed to in previous film iterations. She employs a nonlinear structure designed to bring the central character from adulthood back to childhood. It’s motivated, emotional, and effective. Unfortunately, Wendy fails on all these fronts, resulting in a muddled, forgettable story.
Beasts is a tough act to follow, but after seven years working on Wendy, it’s disappointing and troubling to see Zeitlin deliver such regressive work.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Wendy will be released by Searchlight Pictures in select theaters February 28th.
Donny Sheldon is a Philadelphia-raised, Los Angeles-based, WGA-award-winning writer. He studied Film & Cinema Studies in college at American University and earned his MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s followed the Academy Awards race since he was 10 years-old when his (once) beloved Titanic swept the Oscars that year — although now he’s of the opinion that Boogie Nights probably should have done that. You can find Donny on Twitter and Instagram at @dtfinla