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Wendy

Year: 2020
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writer: Benh Zeitlin/Eliza Zeitlin
Cast: Devin France

There might have otherwise been little reason to watch a post modern interpretation of the mythology of Peter Pan, except that this was the new film from Benh Zeitlin, who so wowed the indie firmament years ago with Beasts of the Southern Wild (and it says something about the state of the film industry that it took him this long to get another film made after that was such a creative triumph).

That movie was straight-up good, but Wendy is something else entirely, a contradiction in tones and moods that extended to my response to it. I got bored so many times but loved the film as a concept overall. It made me cry a little but I rarely knew what was going on. It (probably) all meant something literal to Zeitlin, but he isn't interested in you knowing what that is. It was like the best and worst work from Shane Carruthers and Terrence Malick all rolled into one.

Wendy (Devin France) is a precocious pre-teen who lives with two rough and tumble, Huckleberry Finn-type brothers and her single mother, an uneducated Southern woman who genuinely and earnestly loves her kids and therefore makes the word 'redneck' seems unfair.

Wendy helps out in the diner her mother runs downstairs while her brothers play and explore the family's steamy, rust-belt home, and at night she looks through the window as clanking steam trains pull into the terminus that contains their house and the diner, so close outside their bedroom window they could literally step onto them if they want.

They do so one night when Wendy spots a young African American boy cavorting on the roof of one of the carriages in shorts, bare feet and a ratty old coat that looks like it was stolen from a boarding school student a generation before.

We already know Wendy's harboured dreams of running away and finding her own adventures, so it's her that convinces her brothers to go with her and accompany the boy beckoning to her. The train starts and rumbles off into the night with them all sitting on top.

From there the story – like the characters – go in all sorts of weird directions, more like a melange of moods than a plot. The kids end up on an island where a tribe of tykes already live, all of them dedicated to lives of play and exploration. They consider the active volcano at the centre of the island to be their spiritual guardian, even calling it 'mother'. Later in the movie we'll discover an encampment/slum of adults who all wander around their makeshift shacks hewn out of industrial waste on a rough, rocky coastline who seem to be constantly angry and miserable but who the kids all avoid.

Even though you might not know what's going on in a literal sense, the themes of the essential Peter Pan mythology are all present, even if barely veiled. The small colony of adults are a cautionary tale – what can happen if Wendy and the kids fall victim to forgetting the wide eyed wonder of childhood. One of her brothers is trapped in a derelict ship that sinks and disappears, showing up later as an old man who barely remembers who he was.

There'll even be a literal nod to the origin story after he's had to lose a hand (I can't even remember why, so gauzy and forgettable were the plot mechanics), later fashioning the knife he carries into a rough hook attached to his wrist. It's just one of the motifs you'll recognise even while you wonder what on Earth is going on in the story they're supposed to fit into.

As Wendy, France is the lynchpin here, her worried expression and wide eyes drawing you in like pools and seeming to belong to another time quite outside regular history. The casting, beginning with her, is perfect for the weird aesthetic of the film, one in which her world is decoupled from regular reality but still steeped in it.

When you look back at Beasts of the Southern Wild, you realise Wendy is a perfect companion piece – in fact I wouldn't be surprised if this was Zeitlin's aim all along, just waiting until his cachet matched his ambitions.

Kids – particularly visually-beautiful African American kids – feature prominently, and he perfectly captures a child's eye view of the world. But it goes deeper, blending elements of fantasy and fairy tale so seamlessly you never know if they're meant to be real or whether one of his characters is lying in bed dreaming them.

While it's actually on I found myself checking the time waiting for something to make sense more than once, but like few other films, elements of it got under my skin so much I'm still enamoured of them weeks later.

It's a shame more critics didn't find things to like about it, or maybe that Searchlight marketed it better (it might have found itself in the Disney-handover twilight zone, its new owners not terribly interested in it despite having a contract to release it).

Zeitlin blazed hot and bright for five minutes after Sundance 2012 because of Beasts of the Southern Wild, and the tepid response to this movie made me think of Upstream Color, what a disappointment it was after the groundbreaking Primer and how another filmmaking talent might have found himself chucked on the industry bargain basement, retiring to TV or damned to toil in obscurity.

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