'Beasts of the Southern Wild' director dramatically reimagines the world of 'Wendy'

Brad Keefe

Director Benh Zeitlin’s “Beast of the Southern Wild” was such a singularly unique film that it was exciting to wonder what he might do for a follow-up.

And we’ve been waiting… since 2012.

Now that it's here, I’m a bit surprised at the mixed critical response to Zeitlin’s pet project, "Wendy," a reimagining of “Peter Pan.” Count me among those who say it was worth the wait.

First off, let’s manage expectations. Do not go in expecting anything along the lines of Disney’s live-action reboots. This is a totally different, um, beast.

It’s also not for kids — not so much for the content (although there is some violence that warrants the film’s PG-13 rating), but more because it’s an offbeat, art-house kinda movie.

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We open in a small-town diner in Louisiana, a hub of the working-class (read: poor) community.

This is where Wendy (Devin France) grows up, and it’s also where the young girl fears she’ll never leave. “Your life will go by, and nothing will ever happen,” she says in a somber voiceover.

Her house is next to the train tracks, so she watches the world passing her by. Until one night when Wendy and her brothers decide to follow a mysterious child, hopping on board a passing train in the process.

The children end up on a mysterious island inhabited by wild and carefree children. As long as you play and don’t let grown-up thoughts enter, you’ll stay forever young here.

But when those adult thoughts — fear, sadness, dread — seep in, the magic reverses and you grow old quickly.

Zeitlin’s “Wendy” is such a loose, free-form narrative that some audiences may be turned off. It’s more Terrance Mallick than Walt Disney.

But there’s wonder and poetry as Zeitlin uses the familiar tale to explore aging, death and the wonder of childhood.

From a breakout France to Yashua Mack’s Peter Pan, the young cast amazes, and that’s a testament to Zeitlin’s ability to get naturalistic performances from the inexperienced actors.

The realistic small-town scenes that open the film hooked me early, and the wonder of what follows is a warm and emotionally rich experience.

At the time of this writing, it’s hard to read what the movie theater experience will be like this weekend, but do keep “Wendy” in mind.

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4 stars out of 5