Sundance 2020: Rekindling Childhood in Benh Zeitlin's Film 'Wendy'
by Alex Billington
February 3, 2020
"I believe in you, Peter." So worth the wait. New Orleans-based filmmaker Benh Zeitlin is finally back with his second feature film at the Sundance Film Festival. He rocked the festival in 2012 with his debut Beasts of the Southern Wild, and is back again eight years later to share his latest creation. Wendy is Zeitlin's new take on Peter Pan, a re-imagining of the classic J.M. Barrie story, this time focusing on the character of Wendy as the adventurous leader of the group of boys. It follows the same story beats and themes as the original "Peter Pan" – it's all in there, including Captain Hook – but it also adds in Zeitlin's unique, gritty southern aesthetic. The film starts with kids escaping to the mythical island by hopping on top of a freight train. It's amazing. One of the most rousing, invigorating sequences in in any film from the festival this year.
I don't mind admitting - I totally LOVE Benh Zeitlin's films. This one got me right from the start. Though I will admit that the first 30 minutes of his films are probably better than everything else that comes after, but I don't mind. Wendy starts by introducing us to children, a young boy and girl, living at a diner nearby high-traffic train tracks. All day and all night they listen to the rickety, creaking sounds of the trains rushing by. One day, Wendy, played by the extraordinarily magnetic Devin France, notices some kids running on top of the trains - and takes off after them, her two brothers in tow. After narrowly catching the train, they meet the young Peter, played by Yashua Mack, and follow him until he pushes them off into the water where he reappears in a boat and off they go to the island of Neverland. Where kids remain kids, unless they grow up.
This is easily the best Peter Pan reinvention since Hook (the 1991 Spielberg movie, starring Robin Williams). If you grew up watching and loving Hook like I did, I think you'll connect with Wendy as deeply as I did. It's a beautiful story about childhood and about growing up, and how important it is to maintain your childhood even when you do grow up. There's a number of themes from the classic "Peter Pan" story that are buried in this update, but Zeitlin adds another layer to it: climate change. There's a giant, flowy fish character named "Mother" that, along with the island, represents Mother Earth. And the adults on the other side of the island want to capture her, and in their greed, they're killing the island. All the natural fauna, and everything else, is turning brown. It's clearly more climate commentary, worked into his Peter Pan story in an organic way.
More than anything, I completely love the magical realism in Zeitlin's films. It's spectacular to see what he comes up with, visually his two features are unlike anything else. In an attempt to be poetic: the rays of light from the projector bounce off the screen and grab a hold of the child still buried deep within me. I'm always smiling from start to finish watching his films, this one especially. This is Zeitlin's style, and his specialty as a filmmaker, and even though he is repeating himself in terms of that particular aesthetic, it still works wonders. My biggest complaint is that the second & third acts are a bit clunky, not as smooth as the rest of the film. They drag and feel drawn out. But the opening 30 minutes of Wendy are pure bliss, especially with Dan Romer & Zeitlin's phenomenal score taking us on this grand adventure to the island, with all these kids.
Aside from the middle half of the film dragging a bit too much, the rest of it is magical and meaningful. And above all, I think Zeitlin still deserves recognition for creating such spectacular work. Wendy is one of these films where I can't quite figure out how the heck he made this. Not only the way he is able to integrate his visual style right into the natural settings (they shot mostly in Montserrat), but filming with a huge group of child actors, who all participate in impressive ways. Devin France as Wendy is, without a doubt, the true star of this film with a performance that outshines nearly everyone else. But Yashua Mack playing Peter is a worthy sidekick - sometimes he feels a bit inauthentic, but he's still fierce and determined and bold. And watching them take on the adults is thoroughly satisfying cinematic experience. Never, ever grow up, Benh.