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Sundance 2020: Wendy Review

Every now and then, a movie like Wendy comes along and forces me to wrestle with how to discuss it in a review. It’s easy for me to talk about a rom-com, a gangster flick or a Marvel movie because most of us have a strong sense of what those genres are all about. But Wendy’s co-writer and director Benh Zeitlin is broadcasting on an entirely different wavelength than most filmmakers.

Wendy is a retelling of J. M. Barrie’s classic play and novelPeter Pan. This version is not like the fantasy adventure you’re familiar with. Aside from that, Zeitlin cranked out an unusual movie. Period. Depending on what you expect from a film, Wendy is either a magical revelry of sight and sound or a tedious waste of time.

Wendy loosely retells the original Peter Pan story. A boy named Peter (a mischievous Yashua Mack) whisks Wendy (Devin France) and her two brothers away to a magical island. This film is like the Christopher Nolan version of a fairy-tale – it’s fantastical but super grounded. There are no fairies, no mermaids, and definitely no flying. But there is an extraordinary island where children don’t grow up, and it’s inhabited by a miserable old Captain Hook.

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Zeitlin populates the movie with a wonderful cast of first-time child actors who light up the screen with their ebullient energy. This is also the part of the film that will win you over or turn you off. You must be in tune with Wendy’s whimsical spirit because the movie works better as an experience than as a narrative-driven film.

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Zeitlin wants to make you experience the magic of childhood through film. DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s camera constantly whips from subject to subject with the curious gaze of an exuberant child. It slows down only to lock onto the kids’ ecstatic faces. Dan Romer’s gorgeous score intensifies the film’s childlike sense of wonder. This is a movie that never lets the audience forget they’re watching something beautiful and fleeting.

This director doesn’t care about delivering a by-the-numbers story – Wendy feels similar to the later work of Terrence Malick in this way. Instead, he wants to make you feel something profound. Zeitlin is concerned with exploring what it is that makes us grow up. The problem isn’t only that we lose our innocence with age, the film tells us. It’s that over time we slowly grow numb to life’s pleasures. The question at the heart of the film is whether we can ever get that childish spark back once it’s gone.

I can’t state this more clearly: Wendy is an artsy film, and much of the audience will tune out before the kids even make it to “Neverland.” But if you’re open to the existential questions the movie explores, then Wendy is a transcendent experience capable of moving you to tears.

But I get it if you tell me those tears stem from boredom.

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