A Peter Pan story told from Wendy's perspective sounds either too precious to be true or ripe for a skewering. But in the hands of the filmmakers behind "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Wendy" resides — ever so delicately — in the space between. It is an achingly earnest, feral, transporting and (very) loose reimagining of the classic J.M. Barrie tale about not wanting to grow up.
Gone are the outdated mores and fancy window dressings of Barrie's story, however. Here, the Darlings are a raggedy American family living in the Deep South and surviving by slinging eggs and coffee in a diner full of characters with weathered faces and hearty laughs. In the opening scene, Wendy, a rosy cheeked toddler who is already getting a taste of labor helping her mom crack eggs over the stove, watches a young boy flee from his plate of bacon and the horrifying life sentence of possibly growing up to be a "broom and mop man." He spots a shadow figure of a child on a train speeding by and follows it out of town, away from the unromantic realities around him to where he might just have a chance of being a pirate.
Years go by and Wendy, played by newcomer Devin France, grows up a little bit. She's become obsessed with the fantasy of what she saw, illustrating stories about the boy who left and intently watching the trains outside her window. Then one day the figure appears again and she and her twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naquin) make a mad dash for the freedom they presume lies at the other end of the tracks.
The shadow figure, of course, is Peter Pan (Yashua Mack), who is closer to birth than he is to even being a teenager. Wearing a tattered red prep school blazer and no shirt, he has a mischievous grin, an insatiable thirst for danger and a complete disregard for (or plain ignorance of) consequences, which will reach a particularly disturbing climax later. His island is lush, mythic and full of wonders and perils, both real (like rusty, wrecked ships) and imagined (like aging, which is shown to be grotesque and sad). The Darlings delight in letting their wild sides take over and fear only getting older.
Director Benh Zeitlin, after "Beasts" in 2012 went from a Sundance gem to a four-time Oscar nominee (including best picture), spent much of the interim working on this follow-up, which he wrote with his sister Eliza Zeitlin. In a director's statement, he describes how neither of them wanted to grow up, but sometime after the wild success of "Beasts," they realized they'd have to. This is part of the reason why they've chosen Wendy's perspective instead of Peter's. But they get to have it both ways since they've released Wendy from the cages of ideal Victorian womanhood and made her into an adventurous free spirit (or a real child), torn between wanting complete freedom and knowing that it can't last.
There is much of "Beasts" in the DNA of "Wendy," and Zeitlin's aesthetic is no less enchanting, nor is his magic with novice child actors. Yet "Wendy" comes up short compared to "Beasts." There is a lack of that manic spark that made his breakout so undeniable. With its repetitiveness and lack of structure, it's even a little tedious at times.
And yet it's so sincere that it's hard to pick on "Wendy" for some wheel-spinning, or even the sullen whimsy of it all. It's headed somewhere good and worthwhile: This ending could warm the hearts of even the most grown up grown-ups in the audience.
"Wendy," a Searchlight Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "for brief violent/bloody images." Running time: 112 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.