Dear Wendy is a movie about a boy and his gun. But the boy is a pacifist, the gun is also his girlfriend, and the movie is from Denmark, specifically the mind of Thomas Vinterberg via the mind of Lars von Trier. Loving it requires forgiving its reckless assaults on unspecified American values—but the movie is too foolish to defend. Loosely a youth violence parable and generically a schematic crypto-western, Dear Wendy asserts, among other things, that even good kids can go rotten in a land that permits ready access to firearms.
Narrated by Dickie (Jamie Bell), the film is set in an ambiguously Southern mining town called Esther Slope. The place is polluted with cartoon accents (thanks, Bill Pullman) and the occasional unsubtly displayed Confederate flag. Dickie, a truculent white teen, has lost his father in a mining accident and is essentially minded by Clarabelle (Novella Nelson), his rotund black housekeeper. He buys a gun as a present and winds up keeping it for himself. Dickie’s passion for this pistol inspires him to start an underground gun club with four other young outcasts in the vast bowels of Esther Slope. They call themselves the Dandies, and each acquires and christens a gun. Dickie’s is called Wendy, and his narration is conceived as a letter to her.
The gang’s days are spent concocting and performing rituals. There is target practice, and there are dress-up sessions in which the kids wear costumes that look as if they came from a yard sale at the Little Rascals’ clubhouse. In any case, trouble closes in on the Dandies’ faux-hippie halcyon days, and the movie goes rapidly stupid when the local sheriff (Pullman) enlists Dickie to play probation officer to Clarabelle’s city-bred nephew Sebastian (Danso Gordon), paroled for having shot and killed someone. Sebastian is handsome, clear-thinking, and passably wise. (Being a murderer, he thinks the Dandies is a weird way to pass the time—fetishizing and romanticizing their guns instead of using them.) But Sebastian, alas, is also a black male. And his inclusion in the group makes him a sexual threat. The Dandies’ only woman (Alison Pill) finds him “sexy,” and Dickie comes to believe he’s after Wendy. Sebastian is the sort of character whose blackness persists as a sexual or social affront to everyone else. The movie doesn’t understand him as a human being, so he makes even less sense as an ideological tool. His blackness is meant to evoke assumptions held about black masculinity. But the movie, like others before it, winds up endorsing what it intended to explore and dismantle. (See Meg Ryan’s student in Jane Campion’s or any of the African-American men in Paul Haggis’s Crash.)
The movie simultaneously culminates and collapses when the Dandies, Sebastian included, attempt to transport the newly paranoid and belligerent Clarabelle, who, as written and performed, makes the maids and mammies in early Hollywood seem like Toni Morrison creations. A simple trip across the town square (she fears street gangs whom we never see) results in a grotesque shooting. When big old Clarabelle whips out a shotgun and competently uses it, the movie is dragged to its incomprehensible nadir. A gun owner, the movie blurts, is inevitably a killer—but, in Vinterberg’s stylized hands, the star of her own Peckinpah bloodbath, too.
What’s happened to Vinterberg? This is his second consecutive disaster, after It’s All About Love (01), a movie whose defenders’ critical appraisals tend to be far more compelling than anything in the film itself. Both movies are comprised of the bad ideas and grandiose images that the severe aesthetic commandments of Dogme 95 were apparently repressing in the film that made his reputation, The Celebration (98). That movie had memorably complete (or at least interesting) characters and a surpassingly haunted house. It also had a story, and Vinterberg was extremely convincing in telling it. In fact, he was quite inventive with the material’s metaphysical ambiguities and the formal restrictions. That director is nowhere to be found here. There’s a void at the center of Dear Wendy. It lacks a heart, a mind, and a soul, and yet it has the ego and narcissism to use style to cover for its inability to articulate itself.
Sadly, the real Thomas Vinterberg appears to be standing up. But for what exactly? Trier’s script feels like a unfinished draft for the trilogy of American-history jeremiads he’s in the middle of making. Unlike Dogville, Trier’s first installment, Dear Wendy is missing the allegorical structure and intellectual bedrock to lend credibility to its insanity. Nothing in Vinterberg’s approach to all this suggests he believes a word of Trier’s script—well, maybe the fashion of the idea (Americans are superb hypocrites)—but he doesn’t supply the conviction to keep it from seeming a wrongheaded joke.
Nonetheless, people are comically susceptible to the movie’s shallowness. At the Sundance Film Festival this past January, Dear Wendy was introduced as “a work of cinematic genius.” And in his own pre-screening comments, Vinterberg offered us a preview—a warning, really—of what to expect. He thanked Trier for “lifting me up so I could steal the cookies and then shit on them at the same time.” Mission accomplished.