Monday, August 08, 2005

Review - Dear Wendy

Dear Wendy opens with a teenage boy writing a letter to the Wendy of the title. From the longing, mournful tone of his voiceover we assume that Wendy is a girl he loved, a girl who broke his heart, and that Dear Wendy will be a rites-of-passage tale of teenage love. In a way, the film is a kind of love story - taking us from the first meeting and the early excitement of the romance to the betrayal and painful parting - but it takes on an extra dimension when you realise that Wendy isn’t actually a girl at all. Jean Luc-Godard once claimed that all you needed to make a movie was a girl and a gun, in Dear Wendy the girl is the gun.

Scripted by cinema’s chief provocateur Lars von Trier and directed by his fellow Dogme95 founder Thomas Vinterberg, Dear Wendy is another of von Trier’s scathing attacks on American values. This time his gaze has focused on the USA’s right to bear arms and von Trier builds a story about a group of teenagers who are emboldened and have their personalities defined by their obsession with guns.
The story follows Dick (Jamie Bell), a sensitive, lonely teenager living in a dead-end American mining town. Rebelling against his father’s wishes that he should forge a career in the pits, Dick (instead of turning to ballet) takes a position as a supermarket shelf-stacker. His co-worker Stevie (Mark Webber) initially appears uncommunicative and surly, but the pair find a common interest when Dick reveals the small silver pistol he likes to carry around. Stevie is a gun enthusiast, who has named his own wartime weapon ‘Bad Steel’, and he decides to open Dick’s eyes to the fun there is to be had from carrying a gun. Dick has never fired his pistol (he’s a pacifist) but soon the pair are down in the mines enjoying a bit of target practice before spending many hours discussing everything and anything on the subject of guns.

A firm friendship is formed, and both boys appear more confident as if simply carrying their ‘partner’ added a couple of inches to their stature. Their new found sense of self-worth encourages Dick to offer the same escape route to other teens in their situation, and he invites Susan (Alison Pill), Huey (Chris Owen) and Freddie (Michael Angarano) to get in on the act. Between them the kids form The Dandies, a group who devote their time to celebrating their weapons and forming a strong bond between themselves and their guns. The Dandies respect the power of their firearms though, swearing that they will never be brandished against another person.

Vinterberg captures the group’s developing togetherness and the formation of their new identity with real flair, delivering a stylish and entertaining opening half. Assisted by Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography, which gives everything a bright, dreamlike sheen, and the eclectic soundtrack; Vinterberg skilfully portrays the youths growing devotion to their weapons, which they treat almost like sexual partners, and builds up nicely to the point where it all inevitably turns sour for The Dandies. Unfortunately, it’s here that it starts to turn a little sour for Vinterberg too.

The first sign of trouble for the group occurs when the local sheriff (Bill Pullman) asks Dick to watch over a local boy who has just got out of jail. Sebastian (Danso Gordon) is uneasy with the rituals of The Dandies at first but Susan is instantly attracted to him and he wins over the others with a gift of some guns. But the when he fires Wendy, with an ease and accuracy that sickens Dick, the relationship between Dick and his weapon is damaged irrevocably. However, an even bigger crisis is about to hit The Dandies.

A good deed going awry is the catalyst for the carnage that occurs in the final third. Unfortunately, the nature of this twist is so ludicrous, and the fallout from it so unrealistic, that all sense seems to suddenly fly out of the picture. Dear Wendy suddenly lurches into a different kind of movie, one Vinterberg seems much less sure with, and for some time the film stalls and stutters as Vinterberg tries to manipulate events leading up to the climax. He stages an effective, Peckinpah-style shootout to end the film but it’s hard to see exactly how we reached that point and why. The film seems to fluff whatever messages it’s sending out, touching on any number of gun-related issues without ever exploring them in real depth, and despite the exciting climax I was left feeling fairly deflated and frustrated by Dear Wendy.

The young cast are fine throughout, with Jamie Bell giving yet another hugely impressive display, and Vinterberg keeps the film engaging while never really letting it catch fire, in the way von Trier would likely have done. The shadow of Lars von Trier hovers everywhere over this film and Vinterberg clearly struggles to do justice to his screenplay while still crafting a film that he can claim as his own. After the amazing Festen, it’s hard to know what to make of Vinterberg seven years and two films down the road. He still has a lot of unrealised potential but, while his films have become bigger and more ambitious, he seems to have regressed in terms of basic storytelling and still hasn’t developed a defining filmmaking personality of his own. Working with his mentor von Trier again, on such a potentially explosive issue as the United States’ fixation with guns, must have seemed like a great opportunity to get his career back on track after the dire It’s All About Love. Unfortunately, much of Dear Wendy finds both the director and screenwriter firing blanks.