Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

Benh Zeitlin’s debut film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, was a breath of fresh air that bowled me over when I saw it. It was a wonderfully eccentric, beautiful film filled with melancholy and joy. That dramatic fantasy, like Zeitlin’s latest, Wendy, sometimes feels like a marriage between the stark frankness of a John Cassavettes movie and the free-floating dreaminess of Terrence Malick.

The naturalistic performances from Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s cast of virtual unknowns, particularly young Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, gave the film teeth. It’s a great film that, despite winning at Cannes and Academy Award nominations, not enough people have seen. I loved it.

Personally, I walked out of this sophomore feature, Wendy, feeling conflicted. It’s a feeling I’m used to when I walk out of movies as unorthodox as Wendy. The story, a re-imagining of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, is set in a modern era.

In this version, Wendy (Devin France) and her twin brothers, Douglas and James (Gavin and Gage Naquin) live with their mother who works in a diner by the railroad tracks. Things take a drastic turn when the kids are lured onto a passing train that a mischievous kid named Peter (Yashua Mack) is sitting atop of. From there they go to an island, a Neverland if you will, where there’s always fun to be had and you never get old.

At the beginning, some of that Beasts energy is repeated in Wendy. We’re treated to overlapping conversations between characters that look, speak, and feel comfortably real. We get swept up in the magic and majesty of youth, remembering what it was like to just feel free and let your imagination run wild.

It is exhilarating and you can feel the passion, particularly in the first third of the film. There is a commitment and artistry at work. There are quite a few scenes that involve children in, what looks to be, actual peril. Those scenes are so stunning that I found myself constantly wondering how they got away with it.

That’s movie magic for you. Did I mention how wonderful the film looks, from the beautiful locations in Montserrat, to the production design to Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography? It’s all pretty breathtaking at times. I appreciate the underlying themes of respecting Mother Earth and the need to keep a young, fresh mind when things go dim.

That being said, it didn’t always feel like enough for me. I went from one emotional extreme to the other during the course of the movie. One moment I was enthralled by its magical-realism, and the next moment I was frustrated, wanting things to shift gears from the scenes of the wide-eyed kids exploring their surroundings to a conflict I could get emotionally involved with.

This long gestating project was a labor of love for Benh and his sister, co-writer Eliza Zeitlin. From what I’ve gathered from interviews, it was something they had been dreaming of doing since they were kids. This follow-up feels, like the children of Neverland, restless and unrestrained. It sidesteps narrative conventions and wants to take you along through a world filled with visual poetry and whimsy. I admired everything this movie was trying to do and say.

It has all the hallmarks of movies that I like. That’s why I’m stumped I didn’t like it more. Could it be the lofty expectations built up from the eight-year wait after experiencing Beasts or something as simple as not feeling emotionally engaged with the story of Peter Pan itself?

The wonder of the animated film by our Disney overlords never really hit home for me. The musical stage play I saw weirded me out. Spielberg’s Hook definitely didn’t do it for me. Pan from a couple years didn’t do much for me either. It’s a stretch but my favorite was probably Joel Shumacher’s The Lost Boys, which is more just Peter Pan inspired.

I’m still hemming and hawing over how I actually felt about the movie after having seen it a few days ago. As of this moment, it’s a mixed bag. That opinion could drastically change down the road. I wouldn’t call it a movie for kids considering its existential nature and I can see adults looking for pop cinema being equally frustrated. It’s the cinematic equivalent of outsider art. Some movies you have to go into with a very specific pair of eyes. It’s safe to say that Wendy is one of them.

Wendy — Rated PG-13. Directed by Benh Zeitlin. Starring Devin France, Shay Walker, Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Gage Naquin, and Yashua Mack.

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