A Review of the Movie ‘Wendy’, Starring My Daughter

At the New Orleans premiere

In 2017, my gregarious seven-year-old daughter Cleo earned a small role in the movie Wendy, co-written and directed by Benh Zeitlin, creator of 2012’s Oscar-nominated, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Zeitlin co-wrote Wendy, his second feature, with his sister Eliza. They based the script on Peter Pan lore, and on their shared childhood fantasies.

Impatiently waiting for Wendy for years after she filmed her scene, I told Cleo, “That guy’s first movie did so well, I’d bet he’ll take his time releasing this one.”

“’That guy’s’ name is Behn,” she shaded me. “And he was very nice, and good with kids!”

Finally, eight years after Beasts, I took 10-year-old Cleo and her five-year-old sister and her mom, to the New Orleans premiere of Wendy. From the moment the cameras stopped filming Cleo two years ago, she’d negotiated to also bring her friend Akayla to the premier of “my movie.” So Cleo brought Akayla, and Akayla brought her cell phone.

A lady with a camera and microphone stopped us on our way in, and interviewed Cleopatra on the red carpet, before we took our seats and proceeded to eat an ungodly amount of free popcorn. Cleo and Akayla and I consumed four boxes, waiting for the movie to start. “We ate so much popcorn,” Cleo worried, “we might have popcorn diabetes.”

The theatre reserved its  middle section for more important crew and cast, plus local celebs. I couldn’t place my empty popcorn boxes or my $12 cup of wine on the floor beside me, because of two long legs wrapped around my chair from behind. I turned to find Win Butler of Arcade Fire, texting, a big smile lit across his face.

I felt his phone’s glow over my shoulder as the Orpheum theatre’s lights dimmed and Wendy began. A psychedelic take on Peter Pan, Wendy follows a group of “wild” kids, including the title character, who all escape on a train to an island where they will never grow up. Presumably this is Neverland, sans Michael Jackson. Some of the island’s kids, however, experience events that break their spirits, and cause them to age. The children cast the aged out, creating a colony of run-down old people. The two factions, young and old, end up clashing.

A still from Wendy by Benh Zeitlin, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Zeitlin mostly filmed Wendy on a lush Caribbean island. Much of it happens underwater. The beautiful cinematography captures many dark, moody scenes, which perfectly highlighted the glow of Win Butler’s cell phone behind me. I had feared Akayla and Cleo might end up watching more Tik Tok than they would Wendy, but even the 10-year-olds managed better cell phone etiquette than Win Butler.

At some point Cleo and Akayla ran to the bathroom, and upon their return Cleo whispered to me, “We ran into the girl who plays Wendy! I said ‘Hi,’ and she said, ‘Hi Cleo.’ I said, ‘I forgot your name.’ She said, ‘It’s Devin.’ And Akayla just stood there speechless, because it was the star of the movie.”

I think that counts as my daughter shading Devin France. But Cleo and I both agreed, France killed it in Wendy. All the child actors rose to the task.

Cleo’s scene came at the very end, where she plays the daughter of grown-up Wendy. Like much of the movie, Cleo’s scene played out dreamlike, almost blurry. The movie possessed just enough What the hell’s going on here to keep me focused. I could’ve done without the sporadic voice-over meant to help hold the loose narrative together. Nor did I need a lot of the heavy-handed music. You might call the score by Dan Romer majestic, or treacly, but that might depend on whether or not you’re a kid.

Zeitlin serves Wendy’s theme–don’t let life take away your innocence–with an equally heavy hand. The depressing but brave animated film Inside Out handles this same theme with more skill and grace. I enjoyed Wendy, but definitely consider it a more elaborate, trusting type of kids movie.

Critic Brian Tallerico, who disliked Wendy, said, “Kids will be bored,” but he was wrong. “I thought it was great,” Cleo later told me. “There was drama and excitement and happiness and all the things they need to have in a great movie.” And I don’t think she feels that way because of her tiny part. Akayla also called Wendy “a little scary,” but said she liked it. Cleo added, “My favorite part was the new story of how Captain Hook lost his hand, which wasn’t the real story of how the alligator bit it off.” We both enjoyed Hook’s reworked origin story.

So far though, adults don’t seem to feel Wendy quite as much: from the first round of unenthusiastic online reviews; to Win Butler leaving a half-hour before the movie ended; to Cleo’s mom, who held our sleeping five-year old in her lap throughout. “The movie made me glad to be holding my baby, and that she wasn’t lost,” my partner told me afterwards. Though hesitant to criticize Wendy, mom admitted, “It did leave you thinking about some things, but… It was not uplifting. It was sad.”

I took our five-year-old home, while the ladies all continued on to the afterparty at the New Orleans Aquarium. Wendy star Devin France reportedly bounced around the afterparty “like Drew Barrymore,” and the giant, amazing underwater monster from the movie, the Mother, hung on display. “It was so squishy,” Cleo said.

On our quiet drive home from the long-awaited movie, I asked my youngest, “Was the movie good?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“But weren’t you asleep? Did you see Cleo’s part?”

“Yes.”

“No you didn’t.”

“No,” she said, “I didn’t.”

Michael Patrick Welch

Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans author and journalist. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, Oxford American, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other great venues.

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