As it turns out, Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy” was one of the very last movies I saw in theaters prior to the massive wave of coronavirus-induced shutdowns. But it’s taken me a while to write this because it’s taken me a while to sort out my feelings about the film, which hides some deceptively complex themes beneath its spare, artsy exterior.
With “Wendy,” director Zeitlin—previously responsible for the indie darling “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which followed a young girl’s journey to save her bayou community from an encroaching disaster—has delivered a (very) loose take on the Peter Pan story. It won’t be to everyone’s taste—at times it’s excruciatingly slow and thematically opaque—but I nevertheless found it to have a distinctly haunting power, and its eerie ideas have hovered around in my mind ever since I left the theater.
Set sometime during the mid-twentieth century, “Wendy” begins when the eponymous heroine (Devin France) and her twin brothers James and Douglas (Gage and Gavin Naquin, respectively) decide they won’t follow their mother’s path and work at the local diner. Late one night, the three encounter the mysterious boy Peter (Yashua Mack), who beckons them onto a passing train and down an river by rowboat. At the end of their odyssey is a mysterious island filled with children who never seem to age.
This island harbors many secrets. The wellspring of Peter and his followers’ youth, Wendy and her brothers soon learn, is “Mother”—a colossal glowing fish with some sort of connection to the island. Faith in Mother’s protection, Peter explains, is the root of the island’s flourishing. But as it turns out, the island also has a dark side: those who experience great tragedy—such as the loss of a friend—immediately lose their protection and begin to deteriorate at a rapid clip, passing from childhood into old age in a matter of hours.
(Spoilers to follow)
That lurking curse soon begins to wreak its havoc. During a routine expedition, Douglas is trapped inside a boat wreck and apparently drowned. A despondent James begins to age rapidly, starting with his hands; in a startlingly grisly moment, James hacks off his own arm with a sword in a futile attempt to stop the transformation. (As soon becomes clear, this is actually an out-of-left-field origin story for Captain James Hook.) James then takes up with the island’s population of other “fallen” children who’ve lost their faith and grown old, spearheading an attempt to repurpose an old fishing boat, slay Mother, and feed on her flesh in order to restore their lost youth.
Despite the best efforts of Peter and Wendy and the other children, James succeeds in harpooning Mother. But in the instant of the great fish’s death, the light of Mother’s flesh scatters across the ocean and is lost, leaving James without hope of healing. Then, in an outpouring of grief, Peter and Wendy join hands with the other children in a building song, a single musical note that gathers up the fragments of Mother’s diffused light and restores her to being. James, however, remains withered and old: the best he can do is play at swordfighting with Peter, an aged man desperately grasping at whatever childhood joys might still be available to him.
At some point thereafter, Wendy and Douglas—and many of the other children—return home and go on to live full lives. James is never heard from again.
There are obviously a lot of religious motifs in play here, but “Wendy” reflects a decidedly non-Christian theological vision. Whether consciously or not, the film is a sophisticated aesthetic expression of the classical pantheism (Ross Douthat would use the term “paganism”) that has increasingly begun to inform a good deal of religious discourse within an ostensibly “secular” world. There is no trace of secularity in Zeitlin’s movie: in its magical realism and romantic approach to nature, “Wendy” is decidedly a repudiation of any philosophical paradigm that would treat transcendent value or the sacred (however vaguely defined) as meaningless terms. Yet this “sacramentality,” so to speak, is divorced from any larger theoretical framework.
What’s absent here is what an old professor of mine might call a “High Telos” understanding of history—the notion that there is a narrative arc to the human experience, that things are going somewhere in a cosmic sense. As theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg argued, it is difficult to make sense of Christian thought without an expectant hope of the coming Kingdom of God, a moment where God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
In place of such an overarching structure, “Wendy” instead centers the cycles and rhythms of the natural order. Mother’s death and rebirth is not a resurrection in the Christian sense—an eschatological rupture opening the way forward to the world’s ontological healing—but merely an interval of natural return, rather like the myths of the gods and goddesses of an ancient age (Mithras, Osiris, and so on). And the film’s closing shot—Wendy’s grown children joining Peter on a train bound for the mysterious island, with a smiling adult Wendy watching them go—perfectly encapsulates that theme of repetition and circularity. Nothing has really changed, except the date on the calendar.
This has profound implications for the film’s most troubled character, James. Christian thought has long centered on the tension between nature and grace, and here grace is in short supply. The closing moments of “Wendy” do indeed depict a kind of eschatological vision—a restoration of balance following imbalance—but there is a grim edge to that vision. Here, to transgress against the natural order (trust in Mother) is to commit an unforgivable sin, one that curses the malefactor to remain forever damaged and afflicted. And this punishment is not reserved to James, the one who would hunt and devour Mother: all the other children who experienced sorrow and grew old—regardless of the circumstances—are similarly sentenced to permanent decrepitude. Mother’s island is, in short, a kind of heaven without forgiveness.
As interesting—and unusual—as this sort of story is, I don’t know that most readers of this review would enjoy “Wendy.” I’ve laid out the underlying themes much more starkly than Zeitlin does—the film’s languid pace and dream like imagery will put a lot of viewers to sleep. But if you were ever curious about what art might be produced by a fully post-Christian culture—one that refuses either to depict traditional theological themes or consciously subvert them—“Wendy” is a memorable tale indeed.