Beasts of the Southern Wild was a delicate thing—a wispy, wobbling work of wild imagination, creative ambition, and precious sentiment, set amidst an outsider community in lowland Louisiana. Against all odds, the movie worked. Wendy, director Benh Zeitlin’s follow-up film, works too—but just barely.
Written by Zeitlin and his sister, Eliza, Wendy is a loose riff on the Peter Pan story. This variation centers on a young girl named Wendy (Devin France) who lives a dull life above her mother’s diner at a train stop. One night she spies a figure scampering atop a slowly passing train, so she and her twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naquin) follow him—eventually traveling all the way to an uninhabited island where rambunctious children rule the day.
Much of Wendy feels like Beasts, only overcooked by just a few degrees. As little Hushpuppy, Quvenzhane Wallis anchored Beasts with one of those seemingly serendipitous child performances; she had a heartbreaking candor, even with the often grandiloquent voiceover dialogue, that none of the young (and equally inexperienced) cast members manage here. Meanwhile, the music—composed by Dan Romer alone this time, rather than Romer and Zeitlin as before—has the same triumphant quality, but seems to appear to juice scenes rather than emerge naturally from the characters or the action. And while Beasts’ swirling narrative coalesced into something concrete about the dignity of the least of these in a global-warming age, Wendy stumbles through a series of slapdash riffs on the Peter Pan story before hitting us with a vaguely inspirational finale.
All of this suggests that Beasts of the Southern Wild might have been so precious as to be unrepeatable—a primordial achievement preserved in cinematic amber. And yet, there are moments when Wendy shines with the same golden glow: a shot of childhood shadowplay against rocky cliffs; glimpses of a massive, gulping, underwater beast; the way Wendy’s imaginative crayon drawings leap to life on that island. At its best, Wendy is like diving headfirst into one of those drawings and finding yourself looking at the world through the wide, wondering eyes of a kid. And in this way, in these moments, the movie manages the very thing that J.M. Barrie’s original play was all about.