When Angela Darling’s (Shay Walker) kids ask what she dreamt about at their age, she smiles and answers: “the rodeo.” When they ask about her dreams today, she turns and says: “To not screw up raising you three.” Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James’ (Gavin Naquin) youth wrongly interprets that drastic shift in focus as quitting. They don’t know what it’s like to become a parent and reclaim your immortality through the boundless opportunity of your child’s future. Wendy (Devin France) doesn’t either, but their dismissal makes her angry just the same. Her decision to board Peter’s (Yashua Mack) train to Neverland is therefore less about escape than it is validation. Wendy’s wild adventure will be as much hers as her mother’s—proof that dreams never die. They evolve.
So right off the bat we see how director Benh Zeitlin and co-writer Eliza Zeitlin‘s Wendy isn’t going to be the same old Peter Pan adaptation that we’re used to seeing on the big screen. The siblings intentionally chose to throwaway J. M. Barrie‘s text and use their memories of its impact on their childhood instead. How did the Darlings’ journey speak to them? What did they learn from the lessons in Neverland? What possibilities did they see in never growing up? What disadvantages? They sought to flip the script and bring the idea of “lost boys” to reality in much the same way that Benh and Lucy Alibar brought the perilous Louisiana bayou into the realm of fairy tale with Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The comparison points between Zeitlin’s two films are many whether the up-close-and-personal, hand-held aesthetic; Terrence Malick-like narration against nature’s poetic splendor; use of non-professional actors in lead roles; or energetic score specifically catered by the director and Dan Romer to augment the editing style and confidently assist in driving the plot forward. He takes cast and crew to the West Indies island of Montserrat and injects its historical importance into the script (the Soufrière Hills volcano forced two-thirds of the population to flee during the late-1990s) to create Neverland from its desolate, exotic beauty much like The Bathtub was born from Terrebonne Parish’s marsh. Its inherent magic ultimately becomes a character unto itself through the personification of its power to create (and destroy) as the sea creature “Mother.”
“She” provides the ability for Peter and his friends to remain young as long as they hold the joy of their youth close to heart. “She” gives them the strength to continue living with their bottomless wealth of electric energy and carefree attitude while the rigors of adult responsibilities in the real world melt away. This unyielding love for “Her” keeps the spell intact—that same symbiotic relationship I spoke of above as far as children bestowing immortality onto parents. So it comes as no surprise that those who lose their way will ultimately find that love warped into something to possess rather than share. For those like Buzzo (Lowell Landes), what “Mother” provides becomes paramount to what she represents. Belief in “Her” gifts becomes entitlement to them.
It’s resentment towards those who’ve kept the vigor of adolescence alive. It’s that look of disappointment Douglas and James supplied their mother’s new dream despite our having seen how much joy she possesses living in its splendor. Is she traveling around the country riding bulls? No. But she regrets nothing. Angela Darling brings her kids down to her diner to have fun with the patrons and dance to their hearts’ content. She doesn’t see them as a burden stealing her thunder. They’ve instead become a means to replenish it. So just like with reality, the kids in Neverland must confront the fork in their lives that separates indignation from happiness. Will they see the wonder of a “normal” life’s never-ending adventure or become despondent to its seeming futility?
Mutiny against Peter’s fantasy is born as Captain Hook—albeit not from the same antagonistic malice as we’re accustomed. Anger is a force that Wendy and company must reckon with once a plan to kill “Mother” risks everyone’s independence by removing what keeps them young (nothing reminds you that you’re a child more than a living parent to confirm it), but it’s born from a misguided sense of longing rather than villainy. Those who seek to reclaim their lost youth don’t wish harm upon Peter. They simply aren’t averse to that result if it means achieving their goals. Stealing “Mother’s” magic, however, means stealing the others’ freedom. If Hook can’t have fun, neither should they. It’s less about getting than taking away and what’s more “grown-up” than that?
There are some shaky narrative bits post-climax as far as what’s being said where it concerns who must stay and who can go, but the denouement is a purely sensory experience that’s emotionally potent enough to make the hows and whys fade away. Wendy has her epiphany in Neverland and teaches it to the rest. She realizes what truly matters about youthful bliss and is ready to put it into practice much like her own mother has despite long hours and simple living. Love is stronger than the toil of what is and the longing of what could be. Whether you grow to be a mop and bucket boy or a pirate, your potential for adventure remains. Your surroundings don’t make your fun. You bring that fun to them.
And that’s exactly what Zeitlin does with the help of an infectiously rambunctious cast brimming with wild spirit and sweet innocence. Mack is a delight as Peter—a trickster with a glint in his eye who’s able to find the pathos necessary to confront what will befall him if “Mother” disappears (the loneliness of being orphaned by his real parents created “Her” after all). France therefore proves a voice of reason as Wendy—a young girl looking to experience the adventure before her without ever pretending she’d actually stay forever. She’s our eyes and ears to experience this bewitching land of infinite possibilities and to see beyond the metaphor of “Mother’s” monstrous beauty as that which we simultaneously seek to replace and aspire to soon become.
 (From L-R): Yashua Mack, Devin France, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross, Ahmad Cage and Krzysztof Meyn in the film WENDY. Photo by Jess Pinkham. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Devin France in the film WENDY. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 (From L-R): Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross and Yashua Mack in the film WENDY. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved