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"WENDY"
(2020) (Devin France, Yashua Mack) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Fantasy/Drama: A girl and her brothers end up transported to an island where as long as they think and act like a child, they can stay that way forever.
PLOT:

Wendy (DEVIN FRANCE) is a girl growing up in the South where she and her brothers, Douglas (GAGE NAQUIN) and James (GAVIN NAQUIN), are being raised by their single waitress mom and likely seem destined to grow up in their small town with not much, if any chance of escaping and having a bright future. That, and her mother's confession that any childhood dreams she had of her own have since been replaced with simply wanting to take care of her kids doesn't sit well with Wendy.

And thus when a train passes by on the tracks right outside of her house and she spots the figure of a child running along the tops of the cars, she convinces her brothers to jump onto that with her. There, they meet the carefree and mischievous Peter (YASHUA MACK) who eventually transports them to a faraway tropical volcanic island where a small collection of kids -- including Thomas (KRZYSZTOF MEYN) who previously ran away from a similarly predetermined life facing Wendy and her brothers -- live and play without a care in the world.

Peter, who seems able to communicate with the volcano and surroundings that he's named "mother," tells the newcomers about the few rules of the land. One is to never step foot in the barren part of the island where an old man aimlessly roams about and another is to never stop acting and thinking like a child, lest one grow up. The kids are happy to oblige, but when an apparent tragedy causes those rules to be broken, the lives of the kids as well as their new childhood paradise come into danger.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10

Having only known my grandmothers when they were already in their seventies by the time I was born, and since no film footage of them from earlier years existed, that and their aging into their nineties was the only impression I had of them beyond a smattering of old photographs of them as younger women. I always wondered what they were like as younger adults, teens, and kids. Should time travel be created before my last lap around the sun, would I even recognize them? And would I see a particular moment where they transitioned out of childhood and its sense of wonder, playfulness, and curiosity?

Considering a study done some years back that indicated that people have decidedly different personalities between childhood and old age, perhaps not. Of course, humans aren't the only species that lose much, if not all of their playfulness as they get older (just look at kittens vs. senior cats), but people do have some free will in the matter, or don't they? The loss of childhood wonder and innocence from the turn into adulthood has vexed philosophers and storytellers for thousands of years, with J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" probably being one of the best known and likely one of the most adapted looks at that since its first telling more than a century ago.

The latest is "Wendy," an artsy reimagining of the tale from Benh Zeitlin, the Oscar-nominated director of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" from back in 2012. In this version, and as indicated by the title, the focus centers on Wendy (Devin France, quite good in terms of creating a captivating character you simply have to watch), a young girl growing up in the South where her future looks likely to follow that of her single mother who waitresses at a diner when not taking care of Wendy and her more rambunctious brothers, Douglas and James (Gage Naquin and Gavin Naquin).

During a rare quiet moment and answering Wendy's question, the mom indicates she once dreamed of being in the rodeo, but now only dreams of taking care of her kids. That, and the fact that a few years earlier another kid -- Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn) -- disappeared into the night never to be seen again after running after a train with a small figure atop one of the cars beckoning the boy to come along with him -- has Wendy concerned about losing her childhood like her mom. So when the train rumbles by one night and Wendy catches sight of that mysterious boy once again running along the tops of the cars, Wendy gets her brothers to join her as they jump from their house to that train.

That mysterious figure, of course, is Peter (played here by Yashua Mack -- who was 5-years-old when the film was shot -- looking like a cross between an angelic cherub over one shoulder and a grinning mischievous devil of sorts over the other). He ends up taking the siblings to a remote volcanic island where several other kids -- including Thomas -- play with reckless abandon and not a care in the world. Peter not only acts as their leader, but also a conduit of sorts with not only the volcano, but also a mysterious, glowing whale-like beast that swims in the surrounding waters and "mother" (presumably mother nature, but possibly also the volcano, the island, the creature or some combination thereof).

The only rule is not to lose one's childish attributes lest they turn old like a mysterious old man who occasionally leaves his desolate and barren part of the island to enter their lush, jungle abode and try to steal some of their youthfulness. Alas, when something bad seemingly happens to Douglas, James suddenly and partially starts to age, leading to a rather severe remedy that ends up changing the balance of life on the island and "mother" herself.

Zeitlin -- who co-wrote the script with sibling Eliza -- keeps some of Barrie's signature elements (including, yes, Captain Hook -- well, sort of) -- but otherwise makes the story his own in a mesmerizing visual way (although I could have done without the nausea-inducing shaky camera footage that barely takes a rest during the 112-minute runtime). Yes, it's one of those flicks that sort of sears into your memory and makes you wonder what everything means and how it's all supposed to come together, yet at the same time can't escape feeling fairly boring once everything has been established.

When asked what I thought immediately upon walking out of our press screening, I remarked that I admired the ambition but the execution left something to be desired. And despite the memorable visuals and some good performances, you might feel the same way as I did that greater attention should have been paid to making a more compelling story and less on the allegory and metaphors about childhood lost. Initially intriguing but ultimately less than a sum of its parts, "Wendy" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 2, 2020 / Posted March 6, 2020


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