PARK CITY – He still has that same eye.  It’s been eight years since Benh Zeitlin became a cinephile phenomenon with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and in that unusually long period, the New Orleans based filmmaker has kept a rather low profile. Despite a Best Director Oscar nomination and massive critical acclaim he didn’t take a studio feature or sell a series to a streaming network. Instead, he and his sister, Eliza, were writing.  And scouting for unspoiled locations. And looking for the right-first-time actors. Those years of work have led to “Wendy,” a very loosely inspired version of J.M. Barrie’s classic “Peter Pan” tale.  But despite a completely new cinematographer (“Victoria’s” Sturla Brandth Grøvlen instead of Ben Richardson) and no new work to compare to that at least anyone is publicly aware of, that magnificent eye is still there.

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You first notice it in what is essentially a flashback scene. Somewhere in the Deep South, there’s a small-town diner extremely close to a pair of railroad tracks. Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn), maybe 5-years-old, maybe 7, is close to hyperactive and begins distracting his Aunt who is tending bar and as well as acting as the venue’s only waitress. After being chastised he sprints outside to play on the tracks. While he’s swinging a large stick to let out his frustration a train car moves behind him on the other track. On the top of a car, almost out of view is a figure in a makeshift cloak. Under the cloak is a kid, who laughs and runs out of frame in the opposite direction of the train.  It’s a small moment in the context of the film, but it makes you hold our breath for an instant. And, at his best, Zeitlin and his collaborators find ways to take your breath away. Thomas though follows the mysterious figure and is gone.

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Years pass and Thomas’ young cousin, Wendy (Devin France), and her twin brothers Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin), are living with their mother (the diner owner we saw previously) in the apartment above the eating establishment. The trains go by every night, but Thomas is just a memory. A ratted missing child poster on a billboard full of them. One night, Wendy’s brothers see a similar figure running on a slow-moving train out their shared bedroom window. Before they know it, all three have followed this figure, this Peter (Yashua Mack) on the train to a boat and, eventually, a wondrous Neverland island that promises non-stop adventure (as long as you don’t stop, of course).

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This Neverland  (it should be noted it’s never called that in this context in the film) has a massive semi-irrupting volcano that sits at its center. The jungles and beaches that circle it are unspoiled. There isn’t a hint of civilization to be found. And Peter quickly reunites Wendy and her brothers with Thomas who has not grown up at all.  He’s the same precocious boy Douglas and James remember playing with at least a decade before.  The newcomers band together with Peter’s gang and run through the land with almost endless joy.  They’ll soon learn, however, there are rules on this island. Don’t stop, keep playing, keep exploring, don’t question, don’t show your fear, make sure you “believe” and you’ll stay young forever. Attempt anything else, stop believing and not only will you grow old, but you’ll age faster than nature intended.  And being old? That ensures a fate worse than death, banishment to a desert-like land full of abandoned buildings and man’s broken-down creations where regaining their youth is simply impossible.

When Douglas becomes separated from the group after exploring an abandoned ship offshore, James finds himself questioning their situation. The film then takes a dark turn as the narrative threads of Barrie’s original tale weave their way through Zeitlin’s new vision. The structure of the story remains the same, but the Zeitlins constantly leave you guessing whether the consequences will be as grounded as the lush and real environment this tale plays out in.  Sure, there is Mother, a gigantic, mystical fish from the center of the earth whose power keeps Peter and his friends gloriously young. But even she can’t save everyone, can she? (And, seriously, it’s a big, glowing fish that everyone eventually fights over).

At the center of this tale is Wendy herself played by the bright-eyed France.  The 10-year-old somehow resonates with a richness that carries you through the story and often when Zeitlin needs it the most.  Out of all the young (and old) actors she makes you believe in this scenario (although it should be noted that the Naquin brothers are very, very good).  The one performance that leaves you wanting is Peter himself. At five-years-old, Mack is one of the youngest actors in the film, and while he’s energetic his lack of nuance becomes a detriment. You have trouble believing why all these kids would spark to this particular version of Peter Pan. Maybe it would have been easier to envision if he was a bit older, but it’s a hole in a film that eventually becomes slightly weighed down by a number of them.

According to a written statement, the Zeitlins envisioned using the Barre story to explore their own childhood dreams of staying young and not growing old. It appears as though they wanted to explore not only what aspects of childhood wonder gets lost when aging, but whether it can be stopped or regained.  It’s a valiant goal, but those themes get muddled in what is often a confusing climax. As hinted at earlier, “Wendy” also goes in unexpected directions including one horrific incident that is played out quite realistically. That may result in genuine cinematic tension, but because the world is meant to be so grounded it becomes difficult to square the poetic with the fate of Wendy, Peter and their crew.  

What you take away from “Wendy,” however, is that Zeitlin’s talent to soar cinematically remains intact. He can transport you to a fantastical world without the benefit of massive CG effects or a massive set on a gigantic soundstage. Zeitlin is an auteur just as we thought he was and he’s going to continue to challenge his audience.

Zeitlin’s work is assisted by a glorious score from his “Beast” composer Dan Romer and a production team that found absolutely stunning, untouched locations such as the Caribbean island of Montserrat. [B/B+]

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