Directory Kelly Reichardt follows last year’s much-praised indie Old Joy with the tonally similar Wendy and Lucy. Like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy is a contemplative tale of relationships. Though the former film told the story of two out-of-touch friends reunited for a camping trip, the latter explores the connection between a rambling woman and her loyal pooch.
A poetic, cautionary tale for our economically distressed times, Wendy and Lucy introduces us to its titular duo. Wendy is a young woman whose life has fallen almost completely off the rails. We know little about her past, but we understand her almost immediately. Reduced to the few meager possessions (not to mention her dog Lucy) crammed into her beaten-down Honda, Wendy is en route to Ketchikan, Ala., where she dreams of landing a potentially lucrative job at a fish cannery. As (bad) luck would have it, her car breaks down in an unpromising part of Oregon filled with grubby strip malls and empty parking lots.
Here, we witness firsthand the sense of isolation and loneliness that poverty has forced on Wendy. She has no one to turn to for help. Gas stations are closed. Cars flash by heedlessly on the freeway. The only friend in the world on which Wendy can rely, it seems, is her cheerful yellow mutt, Lucy. Once the situation has been firmly established—Wendy sleeping in her car outside a mechanic’s shop and rationing her pennies—Reichardt raises the stakes. Wendy and Lucy become separated, and all of our heroine’s crises crash together at once. Apparently, Reichardt shot this film before our country’s economy went to hell in a handbasket. Even so, it’s hard to imagine a more perfectly timed piece of cinema.
Though it sounds like a depressing and stressful tale, Reichardt has a big heart. In her view, people are generally selfish, looking out for themselves in the grand scheme of things; but she’s an optimistic sort of artist. People act the way they do mostly out of a sense of self-preservation—be it economic, emotional or physical. Reichardt is always on the lookout for those small moments of kindness people are perfectly capable of expressing when they take the time to stop and look at what’s in front of them. At first, we expect Wendy to run into even more harrowing circumstances in her quest to locate Lucy, but our gal’s continually surprised (even embarrassed) by the fact that many people are nice to her. And despite her woes, she’s obviously driven by hope and passion—two vitally important characteristics when life is at its dimmest.
Reichardt’s films can best be described as “naturalistic” in the sense that they come across as unadorned and realistic—but also in the sense that watching them is a bit like watching the seasons change. It’s beautiful, but not all viewers will be able to adjust to a pace that invites lots of inward contemplation. This is a deceptively simple character study, uncluttered by heavy plot mechanics and paced by the gentle metronome of everyday life. There are moments when Reichardt’s work looks like that of painterly film maverick Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line). But Reichardt’s sense of timing is much better than Malick’s. She wraps up her tale in an economical (and plot appropriate) 80 minutes. Shades of European neorealists like Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D) are equally inescapable.
Of course, little of this would play well on screen without the grounding presence of a powerful actress. Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, “Dawson’s Creek”) is more than up to the task, chopping her hair, foregoing makeup and deeply inhabiting the skin of her rootless and increasingly desperate character. We may not be privy to all that many details regarding Wendy; but by film’s end, we know her intimately.