(From L-R): Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross and Yashua Mack in the film WENDY. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

by Rivera Sun

“Wendy” is a mind-blowing, intense, and soul-shattering new film from the creators of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

The movie burst through my heart and soul like the freight train that conveys the modern-day remix’s characters to Never Never Land. This adaptation transcends the syrupy interpretations we’ve come to expect from Peter Pan adaptations. Much to the chagrin of some viewers, it puts the wild Pan back into Peter, and reminds us that children are not possessions, but beings with secrets and mysteries not even their parents will ever truly understand.

Wendy begins at Darling’s Diner in the rural south – stripping the upper class mystique straight out of the narrative and replacing it with a rural working class tint as gritty as train smoke and poverty. Wendy is just a toddler slung against her formerly-incarcerated mother’s hip when the movie begins. Her older brothers, twins, charge into the diner with the ferocious – and obnoxious – intensity of all hyper-excited young boys. Wendy watches their friend Thomas scowl under the mockery of adults who predict a life of drudgery and misery for him. She sees Thomas rebel, hop a passing train, and vanish into the distance. Several years later, when another whistle-stop train calls and a whispering voice in the night speaks to her, Wendy leads her twin brothers out the window, onto the train cars, and off into the darkness.

From there, it’s a non-stop ride to Never Never Land – one that walks a knife’s edge of magic and danger. Wonder hangs in the next heartbeat – as does disaster. There is something achingly familiar with the shrieks of delighted children and their lived sense of wild enchantment. At the same time, like all ancient myths, this is a place of danger, too. Loss and consequences haunt the edges of fun and excitement. The adaptation brushes up against familiar archetypes from the JM Barrie original, but pushes the themes to new levels of understanding. The references to the original will sneak up on you. The twists on the old elements will surprise you and make you look at this story in a whole new way.

The Lost Ones (for Wendy boldly ditches the sexism and racism of Barrie’s original Lost Boys) are not watered-down Little Rascals. The children are neither over-scheduled little adults nor cherubic inventions of Hallmark cards. They are feral creatures, fully alive in their self-determination. Peter Pan is a real Pan, half boy, half mystical creature, standing firmly in his power and mastery of his world. He is not the kind of child that cuddles up to you – he stares at you with burning, defiant eyes, and dares to laugh in your face. Wendy is a casting triumph, a directorial masterpiece. This ferociously untameable girl breaks the mold of every Wendy interpretation to date. She bluntly rejects the original notion of being anybody’s mother. She is Peter’s equal, nothing more, nothing less. She stalks the screen in a too-big tee-shirt that once belonged to her formerly-incarcerated mother. She is the ringleader, the first to leap off the cliff, and the one who leads them all back home with the kind of love and heart that our world desperately needs in its sheroes. In so doing, her character is a stern rebuke to the childish narcissism of contemporary individualism. Peter’s arrogant non-concern for the heartache of others is unacceptable to Wendy. Like her female counterparts in our real world, she leads the way to rescue her brothers from death or trauma-induced exploitation.

These are children on their own terms, the sort of characters that we all might remember being in our days of building treeforts and wandering half lost between imaginary realms and the gloaming hours until “supper” was called out by our parents. Perhaps, you, like me, have never really grown up or out of this. If so, you’ll understand that this movie is to our culture what JM Barrie’s play was to his stultified turn-of-the-century culture. In this adaptation of the beloved classic, Benh Zeitlan has brought the original message forward to our times. Wendy portrays children in revolt against the dreary world created by adults – a revolt that happens in our real world on a daily basis as children squirm at desks during standardized tests or walk-out of school for climate strikes. Just as Tinkerbell represented the fey and pagan wild magic that needed to be revived in Barrie’s times, Wendy‘s Gaia-like Mother reminds us that the feminine and the Earth are imperiled. We must revive them or face the consequences of lost life.  

In this movie, there are no stereotyped Indians. There are no sanitized pirates. Instead, the creators dig deeper into the archetypes of wildness and lawlessness. Hook is a “villain” of Peter’s making, a soul torn asunder by grief, loss, and trauma. Aging Lost Boys (and girls) who have become “really, really lost” turn into pirates only when they decide to hunt the ocean-creature embodiment of the Mother. In scenes that shock us with their contemporary parallels of extraction and exploitation, this adaptation is a painful reminder that myths and stories are here to shake us awake, and teach us the peril of our current paths. From start to finish, Wendy is a sharp commentary on our world. In Wendy – asin real life – grown-ups kill their spirits by conforming to cultural norms. They strive after false promises of youth and beauty, and in so doing, kill the earth and the sacredness of all things. At its heart, this movie is an anthem for everyone who dares to defy our contemporary world of cruelty and greed, exploitation and despair.

Wendy doesn’t play by Hollywood’s rules. It challenges those indie movie critics who have become complacently accustomed to jaded cynicism. It defies the unspoken dictum that artists must veil their true meanings and tone down the messages that the critics aren’t ready to hear. Wendy’s mixed reviews are split right down the lines of critics who still understand magic and wildness, and those whose calcified hearts are a hallmark of how “grown-up” they’ve become.

Clap your hands if you believe in faeries, the original Peter Pan implored us as Tinkerbell lay dying from Hook’s poison. Wendy is asking us to “clap our hands” to all it represents: love, courage, wildness, unbridled joy, magic, mystery, childhood’s clear ferociousness . . . and the fact that it is not only childhood and the earth that are worthy of our love. It is the entire journey of growing up with our hearts intact, our love for the Earth undaunted, and our spirits ready for the greatest adventures of our lives.