The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema] - WENDY | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema] - WENDY

wendy review
Reimagining of JM Barrie's Peter Pan.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Benh Zeitlin

Starring: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn, Romyri Ross

wendy poster

Although J.M. Barrie produced more than 40 published pieces - ranging from poems, novellas, plays - the single work which the Scottish author is remembered for is the creation of Peter Pan, a character who first appeared in the 1902 novella 'The Little White Bird'. A run of the ‘J.M. Barrie’ name through Amazon initially causes an avalanche of Peter Pan related works from other writers, and a more specific search only turns up prolific editions - illustrated, adapted, annotated - of Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’. His other works are almost all out of print (and also out of copyright, consequently available digitally for cheap, qualified by the legend ‘converted from its physical edition to the digital format by a community of volunteers’, i.e. complete heroes). Perhaps Barrie had an inkling that his arrested development imp would be his legacy, as he featured Peter in five works (six, really, if we count the adaptation of his own play into a novel). I mean, even Barrie’s eventual biopic was called Neverland! The little boy staring in at the window gazes on, his influence upon the lingua franca of pop culture manifest: from Michael Jackson to Joel Schumacher, the iconography of Barrie’s 1904 play abides.

wendy review

Peter Pan is one of those books more talked about than read, with everyone grasping at least the perceived basics: immortal child, flight, pirates, enchanted islands. But it’s the implied themes of Barrie’s work which are so seductive to works which followed, the ideas of rejected adulthood, responsibility, maternity. Adaptations range from the explicitly sexual (Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s 'Lost Girls' - it’s quite something) to Joe Wright’s astounding flop Pan (2015).

Which brings us to Benh Zeitlin’s (script duties shared with Eliza Zeitlin) Wendy, a modern recontextualization of the story set in contemporary Louisiana (with a ruggedly handsome Montserrat standing in for Neverland). Wendy (Devin France) is one of a bunch of Darlings, but unlike the stuffy parents of Victorian London, her single mom is a short order cook somewhere in Shitkickersville La. The diner Ms Darling works in is situated by the rail tracks heavily used by cargo trains which tear though the Deep South. With her back to the aged clientele of the diner, Wendy stares all day out of the dirty windows at these big metallic beasts roaring by, dreaming of other places and the speed and excitement of a journey away from here.

wendy review

I wasn’t crazy about Zeitlin’s re-imagining overall, but the invocation of place throughout is deeply immersive. The cinematography is indie verisimilitude in these early scenes, with overlapping dialogue and handheld cameras; the representation is rough hewn Americana with Mother Darling opining that she is ‘makin’ sure ah don’t screw ya’ll up too bad’. Such homilies are not enough for Wendy and her kinsmen however, who, in the dead of night, abscond with a dreadlocked urchin atop a speeding train. They’re off to Neverneverland!

In a grubby school blazer, Peter is less the God Pan-inflected trickster of Disney’s imaginings and more like a truant from Golding’s 'Lord of the Flies'. He’s also more of a little kid than the smart-ass cavalier of popular imagination; prone to tantrums and confusion. This is fateful aspect of Wendy’s unworkable dichotomy, which is an immiscible of fantasy and grit. Montserrat is gorgeous, but not in a way that would appeal to kids-who-don’t-want-to-grow-up with its volcanic vistas and windy beaches. Peter is bossy and petulant, too, leading kids on dangerous missions rather than derring-dos, like the one which involves them winding up a subaqueous beast and results in them losing one of their number.

wendy review

The missing kid’s twin is understandably nonplussed by this turn of events, and so defects to the other side of the island, where a community of ‘olds’ reside: the aged previous lost boys who stopped believing and consequently grew up. Not into adults, but tired octogenarians, riddled with decrepitude and despair. It’s quite horrifying. Within the binary diegesis of Wendy, you are either a pre-pubescent innocent or an aged stick in the mud. Scarier still is when Peter takes it upon himself to cut off the hand of the twin (James), for reasons, as if he’s escaped from City of God. Like that film, in fact, Wendy has a restless perspective which is at first intense, but here ultimately overwhelming. The film’s focus on wide eyed child characters is too simplistic for adult viewers, yet the violence and style would preclude most kids. There is a ‘see what we did there’ quality when Barrie's Victorian imagery is transposed to this barren milieu, but no refreshed application of metaphor or allegory. Like its anti-hero, Wendy is stuck between adult ideas and childish demonstrations.

Wendy is in UK/ROI cinemas from August 13th.

2021 movie reviews