Reviewed by James Slone
(originally published by EndofMedia.com in 2010)
Looking at this year’s major Oscar nominees, you get a pretty good sense of Hollywood’s sensibilities. What they want are big and brash entertainments, crowd pleasers, sentimental melodramas and in-your-face political polemics. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with these approaches, of course, but they tend obscure everyday, recognizable reality behind layers of supped-up editing, swelling soundtracks, exaggerated close-ups, and lots of blood, sweat and tears. And despite this, at least half of them are pretty boring too.
Consider the alternative. “Wendy and Lucy,” Kelly Reichardt’s follow up to the aggressively low-key “Old Joy,” eschews the sound and fury for something much more realistic and considerably less bombastic. It like a demonstration on what movies can be when they’re content to linger and observe everyday experiences. Not a lot happens in “Wendy and Lucy,” but it’s never boring. In fact, it’s deeply affecting, and it’s angry without being insistent on its political themes. It engages you without telegraphing its ideas with music or speeches.
Michelle Williams (miles away from “Synecdoche, NY”) plays Wendy, a woman down on her luck and heading to Alaska for work, escape, anything really. Her car breaks down in a small semi-urban area in Oregon, buffeted by forests and flanked by train tracks. We learn that the town used to house a mill, but the mill’s dried up. Her traveling companion is Lucy, a dog, probably her only friend in the world. During a phone call to her sister, we realize that even her closest relatives have turned their backs on her. With only 500 bucks left and a broken-down car, Wendy’s situation looks precarious.
Things get worse when Lucy disappears. Wendy leaves her tied up outside a grocery store. Busted for shoplifting by an “upstanding” employee, she’s sent to be processed and fined at the police department. When she finally gets back, Lucy is gone. The film follows Wendy as she tries to track down Lucy, all the while dealing with the kinds of mundane bullshit people without resources have to routinely suffer through: fines, unscrupulous auto mechanics and their flexible pricing, harassment from homeless men, people staring at her as she sleeps in her car, condescension from her family. She visits a local pound but can’t even leave basic contact information.
Williams plays Wendy as an introverted misfit, an insular woman stranded in a place and a country that doesn’t really seem to care about her. She doesn’t say much, but is an amicable presence. We sympathize with her without knowing much about her background—what is she running away from? Joblessness, a bad relationship, credit problems? We don’t know, but we intuit that she’s nice and probably undeserving of her fate. Her performance is all in her face, her expressions, her body language, the guarded way she smiles and the raw determination in her grimaces.
Lucy is Wendy’s only close friend. Her desperation to find her dog is deeply affecting, and anyone who’s ever loved a dog will identify with her increasing anxiety. She only loses her cool once, during an encounter with an angry, mentally ill transient, the kind of situation a dog would be useful in. The scene shows how terrifying being homeless can be, especially for a lone woman. In a particularly harsh scene, Wendy has a panic attack in a gas station restroom, realizing that she might have been assaulted or worse.
The only person who helps Wendy is a kindly Walgreens security guard played by Walter Dalton. His job sucks (though as he points out, five twelve-hour days beats seven night shifts a week), but the shitiness of his job doesn’t prevent him from aiding a woman in trouble. He gives her advice, tells her where local services can be found and even lets her use his cell phone to contact the pound. It might not seem like much, but small favors are often the best. And he helps her with such kindness and lack of judgment that it’s almost heartbreaking.
In its unforced, naturalistic and delicate way, the film moves towards an unexpected ending of deep emotional truth. Without bludgeoning the audience over the head with preachy histrionics, Reichardt shows the audience what it’s like to be broke, transient or peripheral in this country. While watching “Wendy and Lucy,” I kept thinking about the latest round of anti-welfare, anti-assistance rhetoric coming out Congress, this time in opposition to anything that might help disadvantaged individuals in the economic stimulus bill. The political philosophy that has been advanced over the last three decades is arrayed against the Wendys of the world.
With the economy being the way it is, a lot more Americans might soon find themselves in Wendy’s situation, broke, isolated and alone, without a helping hand. Some of them will be lucky enough to befriend kindly security guards, but as Reichardt shows with barely a murmur of unspoken pain, that’s quite often not enough.