No child dreams of growing up to push a mop or sling plates in a diner. As Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy observes, though, our dreams change as the years go by.

Angela Darling (Shay Walker) is a single mom of three children running a diner on the outskirts of New Orleans. One of her twin sons (Gage and Gavin Naquin) says she used to be a “badass”; pressed by her children about her youthful dreams, she confesses that she wanted to be in a rodeo.

And now? Her “dream” today — “Taking care of my tribe … making sure I don’t screw you up too bad” — to a child’s ears sounds depressingly diminished. If that’s what growing up means, what child wouldn’t take a pass?

Zeitlin’s celebrated, celebratory 2012 feature debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, offered a magical child’s-eye view of Louisiana bayou life in all its harshness and beauty. The Darlings’ diner in Wendy seems situated at the frontier of the mundane and the magical: a static, stagnant neighborhood seemingly mired in time, untouched by the outside world, with one caveat: the thundering freight trains that invade the neighborhood at all hours of the day and night, their hurtling passage like immense angelic or demonic emissaries, beckoning on behalf of a world beyond.

It isn’t just the trains that beckon. Wendy Darling (Devin France) has glimpsed a tiny figure leaping fearlessly atop the trains from car to car. Long ago a neighborhood boy followed that figure onto a train — and was never seen again. The iron giants barrel right past Wendy’s second-floor bedroom window, so close that she could leap aboard. The trains hold out the hope of avoiding the fate, shared by those left behind, of growing up in what seems a dead-end world where nothing ever happens. In fact, those who ride away may not grow up at all.

Transposing J.M. Barrie’s Victorian fairy tale as a Southern-wild fever dream, Zeitlin’s take on Peter Pan, co-written with his sister Eliza Zeitlin, is in some ways similar in spirit to Spike Jonze’s 2009 Where the Wild Things Are, itself indebted to Barrie. Like Wild Things, Wendy is both exhilarating and sad, homespun and visionary, weird and messily personal.

The tiny figure on the train tops is, of course, Peter himself, played by a startlingly young, dreadlocked Yashua Mack, with an implacable gaze befitting the wildness and sternness of Barrie’s tragic hero. Perhaps he isn’t quite as magical as Barrie’s hero, or as magical as he thinks he is, but he’s intriguingly close.

Mack is one of two black actors playing Peter Pan in new films that made their debuts in January at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The other film, Come Away, is a somewhat more traditional British period piece set roughly in Barrie’s day, with Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo as parents of three children, two of whom will grow up to be Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

Despite its high-minded literary aspirations, Come Away is a disappointment. Among many other problems, Jordan Nash’s sensitive Peter has nothing of the feral heartlessness of Barrie’s incalculable character. Wendy’s Peter is much closer in spirit to the boy who resents all real parents and the claims they make on their children, but who has a special place in his heart for the idea of a mother as someone who tells stories.

In Zeitlin’s film, though, it is not Wendy who represents motherhood. Instead, Wendy is as wild as the boys, for it is her own angst about the compromises of growing up that has catapulted her into Neverland, along with her twin brothers Douglas and James.

Occupying the maternal role traditionally given to Wendy is a mysterious presence replacing Barrie’s fairies and mermaids: a beast that is pure Zeitlin, and the locus of magic in a Neverland very far from Barrie’s potpourri of mythological contrasts.

Barrie’s Neverland was syncretistic patchwork of fairies, Caribbean pirates, American Indians, mermaids, crocodiles and so forth. There are no Indians or crocodiles on this rugged, volcanic Caribbean island, but the island appears to come to life when Peter approaches, just like Barrie’s Neverland, and the volatility of the land seems to answer Peter’s own wildness of spirit and the abandon of the Lost Boys’ play.

As in the world of the Bathtub in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zeitlin emphasizes the visual wonder and playfulness of Neverland, from rugged sedimentary rock formations and underwater caverns to the Lost Boys sliding down muddy slopes or diving from a twisted tree over the water.

There’s also, as in Barrie, a dark side of this Neverland. Carefree romping and gamboling is a full-time occupation, and one can’t pause to reflect or question without the risk of starting to grow up. Even in Neverland, adulthood remains an existential risk. (Barrie’s novel notes that Peter occasionally had to “thin out” the Lost Boys when they started to grow up, but no prior adaptation I’m aware of has contemplated what this might mean, or, as someone says here, “where Lost Boys go when they’re really lost.”)

The Zeitlins’ reworking of Peter Pan’s theme of motherhood is perhaps the most intriguing thing about the film to me. Barrie’s Neverland was both magical and heartless for the same reason: There were no mothers there. Maternal love, for Barrie, bound one to the mundane world and to the necessity of growing up; by leaving mothers behind, Peter could fly away and remain forever a child in a magical world.

This Neverland works differently: Motherhood powers it, makes it magical, and keeps Peter and the other Lost Boys young. In the emotional climax, a crisis corresponding to the poisoning of Tinker Bell, clapping to express belief in fairies is replaced by an affirmation of mother-love. Wendy ultimately vindicates motherhood as a heroic calling; it even subverts Peter’s famous line about dying, proposing that growing up would be an awfully big adventure.

It doesn’t all work. Wendy’s attempts to challenge the dark side of Neverland and the lostness of the Really Lost Boys through imagination and solidarity are given short shrift. Above all, a major character’s disturbing arc emphasizing the gravity of the stakes trails off in an inconclusive, unsatisfying way.

But it’s a rare take on Peter Pan that takes the material seriously on a mythic level, neither banalizing it like the 1953 Disney cartoon nor treating it in an overly self-aware way, like Steven Spielberg’s Hook and P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Pan.

It’s full of sorrow, disappointment and dread, but also joy and hope. In an age when most Hollywood movies try to please everyone on a shallow level, Wendy is a film that shouldn’t exist. It’s a style of moviemaking that seems to have no place in today’s cookie-cutter film market — that seems to have no audience, even, unless the audience is you.

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Caveat Spectator: Brief but intense violence, including a bloody amputation; some cursing. Tweens and up.