“You’re too young to understand,” and its more hope-laden brethren, “You’ll understand when you’re older” were the bane of my existence as a kid. I saw no real reason why I would be unable to understand something that could be put into words. I knew how to read from an absurdly early age, and I guess I put together that if I could read it, then I inevitably understood it. This was, of course, not the case.
Being eight years old and mainlining Stephen King and Elmore Leonard novels only prepares you for a very tiny sliver of the experience of being an adult. I guess the one good idea in Benh Zeitlin’s leaden, overwrought reimagination of Peter Pan, Wendy, is the idea that it’s telling a children’s story to someone who is older, assuming that they’ll understand. It’s a film about children that’s concerned with the abstraction of childish ideas but seen from an adult perspective. To be honest, it’s the kind of thing we were more likely to see from Europe in the ’70s through the ’90s as opposed to America, where children are seen almost entirely as a source of income. Unfortunately, that’s where the good ideas in Wendy stop. The rest of it is merely self-satisfied pap of the crawling-up-thine-own-ass variety.
Wendy (Devin France) lives with her mother, grandmother and twin brothers Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin) in a busted-up railside diner. Wendy has a lot of trouble coming to terms with the fact that she will one day grow up and, presumably, work in a diner just like her mother. She believes that there’s a way for her to never grow up, and she finds it in the guise of Peter (Yashua Mack), a train-hopping preteen who whisks her and her brothers away to a mysterious island where ageing is apparently verboten. (It’s Never-Never Land, but the film never refers to it as such.) Life on the island is carefree and child-friendly, though not without its share of dangers.
Zeitlin made a rather auspicious debut with Beasts of the Southern Wild, a highly stylized fable that garnered many plaudits upon its release in 2012 but has been eyed with more suspicion since, mainly because Benh Zeitlin is a white dude from Queens making a movie about people of colour living in abject, fantasy-adjacent poverty. If nothing else, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a triumph of visual style and art direction, a dream-like kaleidoscope of textures and colours that give the film a distinctive enough look that I remember nothing of what happens in it but exactly what it looks like.
It took eight years for Zeitlin to follow up his debut, years in which he somehow honed his skills into something that looks stunningly like a Benh Zeitlin ripoff. Plastered with a swooning, string-laden score and entranced with its exotic locales (actually the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean), Wendy resembles nothing more than one of those rousing videos made by the tourism board of some place that perhaps needs a shot in the arm like Delaware or some shit.
Now it’s quite possible that this has nothing to do with Benh Zeitlin. In fact, it likely has more to do with the creative bankruptcy of ad agencies who probably just saw Beasts of the Southern Wild and decided to run with it. Nevertheless, Wendy’s biggest problem comes exactly from its style, which trades in the more dreamy aspects of Zeitlin’s previous for the slick, soulless patina of second-unit advertising footage. It robs every moment of its power as it becomes so focused on tricks of light and the never-ending, iPhone-commercial swells of its score. A film that so underlines its allegories and metaphors that it seems to be gunning for the #1 spot in any entrance-level film analysis syllabus, Wendy offers a few good insights on the Peter Pan myth but almost none on childhood, losing itself in marble-mouthed poeticisms.
It’s frankly pretty rare that I respond so negatively to films that aren’t soulless commercial junk. I tend to fall in the middle of most love-it-or-hate-it arguments, which makes the fact that Wendy feels so incoherent and maddening doubly surprising. Zeitlin and his sister are credited with the screenplay, which they based around their own memories of childhood. That gives us some idea as to why the film is as portentous and unclear as it is. Wendy is, above all, an unclear translation; not just of the Peter Pan source material, but of the things inside Zeitlin’s head. It’s not rare that breakout auteurs like him stumble on their second time out of the gate, but to do it in such spectacularly bungled fashion is rare. Maybe I am too young to understand, after all. ■
Wendy opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 13. Watch the trailer below.
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