The “From the Shelf” segment is a series of reviews that were written months ago, but until now have sat, well, on the shelf.
By Christian DiMartino
Remember Beasts of the Southern Wild? Personally I don’t, but seeing what a phenomenon it was when it was released in 2012, it’s probably worth another go. Man, did that film take off. Not only was it adored by just about every critic, but it also made quite the splash at the Academy Awards, receiving nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Quvenzhane Wallis was just 9 at the time), and Best Director for Benh Zeitlin (Zeitlin took the slot over the likes of Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, and Ben Affleck for Argo, the eventual Best Picture winner). Yeah, it was kind of a big deal.
Zeitlin finally returned to the big screen this past February with Wendy, which had quite the opposite effect. Seeing as 2020 has been dreadful, things mustn’t have turned out as expected. Wendy was released a week or two before movie theatres shut down, and not only was its reception mixed, but chances are, you probably don’t even know that it exists. I even forgot about it until recently, but seeing as I’ve been off the grid for a while, it seemed like a good time to get back to writing.
For those who have seen it, the verdict is that Zeitlin’s film, while interesting and ambitious in its approach, doesn’t quite come together. For a good while, I was not on board with the naysayers. Perhaps it’s because Zeitlin’s reach is so large and fascinating that I wanted his little experiment to work out in his favor. Not to mention, there is something a bit bewitching about its production values in a way that echoes Terrence Malick. And yet… as the film went on, it dawned on me that the film had me under a spell, but it didn’t particularly have my interest. It’s definitely a work of beauty and there’s certainly stuff to admire, but there also isn’t much of a connection to really be made, so what you’re left with in the end is a symphony of pretty pictures. But shoot, they are pretty.
We all know the tale of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Zeitlin wants to make sure you know it, but also, he wants you to immediately know that the two stories are not going to be the same. Remember the fun of Peter Pan? Yeah, that’s not to be found here, which is something I can admire. Malick did a similar thing with hugely overlooked work of beauty The New World, which told the saga of Pocahontas without any of the fantastical Disney stuff. The difference here though is that the story of Pocahontas is a real one, whereas Peter Pan, well, isn’t. Yet Zeitlin’s approach is nonetheless daring.
The approach to the story is daring move #1. Daring move #2 comes in the form of the casting, which is essentially a cast of non-actors and children, with the children running the show. The film is told from the eyes of Wendy, who lives with her single mother above a Louisiana restaurant, adjacent to a train. Wendy sees a young lad hop aboard this train, and envies him and fantasizes about doing the same so then she doesn’t end up like her mother.
One day, she follows the young lad, Peter, aboard the train with her two brothers, and they are whisked off to a gorgeous island. This island is essentially ran by an undersea creature named Mother, who causes volcanic eruptions and what not. Peter believes that whenever people don’t believe in Mother, then they grow old and miserable (as many of the people of this island have).
Zeitlin has essentially taken the magic elements out of the story and still, somehow, left the story. His ways of tip-toeing around the fantastical elements are interesting, and after seeing multiple reiterations of this story, sure, a new approach is welcomed. Yet there was still something vastly more appealing about the way it was done before. There is adventure and intrigue here, but it’s also kind of difficult to care about in ways, and whenever action does occur, it almost seems like the story is going through the motions.
Zeitlin’s film is a beauty to behold- he could easily prove to be a worthy successor to Malick, in the way that his films provide a great blend of gorgeous cinematography mixed with a lovely score (which Zeitlin also contributed to). The film, which was filmed for just $6 million, has certainly gotten its money worth and happens to have a DIY feel to it that is more than admirable. The performances here also work, which is no small feat considering what was at stake.
In the end though, Wendy doesn’t quite stick its landing though because there isn’t really enough depth. Not to mention, the ideas at play, while bold and interesting, mostly just feel like ideas that don’t fully add up to a cohesive whole. It’s not a bad film- it’s actually close to good one, because of its craftsmanship and what not. It’s a film of moments, for sure, and it’s an experiment that is worth looking into if you’re curious about it. At the end of the day though, Zeitlin’s little arthouse Peter Pan tale is not quite the gamechanger it could’ve been, but it’s also not a complete dud either.