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► Wendy is in UK cinemas from 13 August.
In J.M. Barrie’s original play and novel about Peter Pan, Wendy Darling flies away not to have adventures along with the boys, but to keep house and mother them – to darn their clothes, do their cooking and tuck them in bed at night. In other words, Wendy wasn’t there for a thrilling extension of her own childhood, but to prop up the childhoods of the boys, which makes you wonder why she bothered to leave her Victorian home at all. Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy isn’t the first film to suggest Barrie’s vision of girlhood was a pretty raw deal. But the director’s revisionist take is appealing and at times moving, the film’s jagged construction working both for and against it.
As played by Devin France, this Wendy Darling is daring as well as kind, a partner and even a leader. Her mother runs a hash house only a metre or two away from the freight-train tracks, and Wendy daydreams of travel and exploits. One night the train stops briefly, and an impish little boy (Yashua Mack) waves Wendy and her twin brothers (Gavin and Gage Naquin) aboard. Their new guide is, of course, Peter, and the train takes them away to a volcanic island powered by a mystical, incandescent undersea creature that Peter and his friends call ‘Mother’.
From there, the adventures and the dangers grow, encompassing not just the traditional fear of growing up, but also a melancholy and unexpected origin story for Captain Hook. The story feels ramshackle, some of the choices unnecessarily grim. The film is deeply sentimental, not in a treacly sense, but in the piercing, bad-things-can-and-do-happen way familiar from MGM’s old family fare and the early Disney movies that traumatised us all. (There are scenes that will be too much for sensitive younger children.)
While the plot sways and swerves, other aspects – like Dan Romer’s enticing score – help anchor it. Wendy was shot on 16mm film, resulting in a warmth and depth to the palette so beautiful I didn’t mind an up-close handheld camera style that drives me crazy in other contexts. Zeitlin loves the faces of his child actors, their haunting eyes and the nuances of their expressions, emotions shown even in a shot that takes in just a sliver of profile.
The film was at least seven years in the making after Zeitlin’s celebrated 2012 debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Released in the US in early 2020, it promptly disappeared, done in by decidedly mixed reviews and the pandemic. Perhaps this strange and highly personal movie will find a better reception in the country that first gave life to Peter Pan.