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 re-imagining 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Gone are the outdated mores and fancy window dressings of Barrie’s story, however.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.
Years go by and Wendy (newcomer Devin France) grows up a little bit. She’s become obsessed with the fantasy of what she saw. 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). 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.
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.
★★½ “Wendy,” Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage and Gavin Naquin. Directed by Benh Zeitlin, from a screenplay by Zeitlin and Eliza Zeitlin. 112 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief violent/bloody images. Opens March 6 at multiple theaters.