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'Wendy' review: Moving, powerful reinvention of 'Peter Pan'

Devin France as  the title character in

Devin France as  the title character in Fox Searchlight Pictures' "Wendy." Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures/Eric Zachanowich

PLOT A girl and her brothers discover a magical island where children never grow old.

CAST Devin France, Yashua Mack

RATED PG-13 (peril, some bloody violence)

LENGTH 1:52

PLAYING AT Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington, and Malverne Cinema 4

BOTTOM LINE A moving and powerful version of “Peter Pan” that might work best on adults.

A Louisiana diner near the railroad tracks represents the last stage of life in "Wendy," Benh Zeitlin's idiosyncratic and deeply affecting reinvention of the tale of Peter Pan. Looking at the elderly faces at the counter, a tween-aged Wendy foresees a joyless future. "Your life will go by," she says in voice-over, "and nothing will ever happen."

That chilling observation is your first clue that "Wendy," directed by Zeitlin and written by him with his younger sister, Eliza, isn't interested in merely gender-flipping the script on J.M. Barrie's 1904 play, "Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up." The Zeitlins want to get to the heart of the matter: The horrors of aging, the fear of death, the price of denial and all the other gut-wrenching truths that got glossed over in Disney's animated film from 1953, still the best-known adaptation. "Wendy" is a brave, clear-eyed, hardscrabble version of the story — hold the pixie dust.

As he did in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (2012), Zeitlin finds magic in the backwoods of Louisiana, where much of this film was shot, and in a cast of nonprofessional actors. His 10-year-old Wendy is Devin France, a tomboy with unruly hair and frank blue eyes. Unwilling to become the next generation of workers at their mother's diner, Wendy and her twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naquin) hop a passing train that whisks them away to an island of eternal children.

Peter Pan is played by Yashua Mack, whose sparkling eyes and chubby cheeks could have been drawn by Disney himself.  Peter is the island leader, but not always a benevolent one. Lose your faith and grow old, and he'll banish you to a barren wasteland. 

The Zeitlins' screenplay is pure poetry, filled with metaphor and wisdom and raw emotion.  The film's mix of high-flown fantasy and down-home Southern culture also has a strange beauty. If anything, "Wendy" sometimes feel overly symbolic. It's more of a literary puzzle than a story.

But what a fascinating puzzle it is. You're likely to leave the theater debating which symbol meant what, and why this figure met that fate. Zeitlin hides perhaps his most important answer in plain sight, revealing it fully only in the film's final, moving moments.

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