This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2009.
Much is made of the proverbial boy-and-his-dog stories, but any guy living in a city who meets his fair share of ladies knows that girl-and-her-dog stories are the next genre just waiting to happen.* If Kelly Reichardt's opening salvo in the form, her 2008 underground hit Wendy and Lucy, is anything to go by, this is going to be a very welcome turn of events. (* That or my personal favorite: weird writer guy and his cat.)
Wendy, played with a brutal frailty by Michelle Williams, is a woman down-on-her-luck, traveling with her dog, Lucy, to Alaska to try to make some money doing hard labor in the canneries. The trip out from Indiana had been going as planned until she hit Oregon. There, her car breaks down, she is arrested for shoplifting, and in the time it takes her to get processed and pay her fine, Lucy has gone missing. The girl who was once mobile suddenly finds herself trapped. Her resources dwindling, all that keeps her going is the occasional kindness of strangers and the hope that Lucy will turn up.
In terms of conventional plot, Wendy and Lucy isn't built on very much, but the narrative that rises out of these humble beginnings is rich and full of humanity. Reichardt has adapted Wendy and Lucy along with author Jon Raymond from one of his own short stories, a pairing that also yielded the 2006 film Old Joy. Spanning only a couple of days, the movie charts the lonely hours that Wendy spends wandering the streets from the pound to the auto garage and back to the kindly security guard (Wally Dalton) who has taken pity on her, providing the girl with information and the occasional use of his phone. The old man is an oasis of compassion in an otherwise indifferent world, helpless as that may make him. There's never any real indication of what he is guarding. Maybe the last storehouse of man's empathy for his fellow man?
I am starting to think that cinema may be the ideal artistic medium for portraying solitude. The image of a single figure on a screen, alone with her thoughts and emotions, is what drives the bulk of Wendy and Lucy. In a book, the author would have to fill the page with descriptions of Wendy's surroundings and her inner turmoil. Such efforts can often get bogged down in the unnecessary, the need to explain overshadowing the subtle pain of isolation. It's not that it can't work, and for all I know, Jon Raymond's short story may have handled this very well, but it's a different kind of immersion. Prose lets you into the subject's head, whereas film invites you to walk in her shoes. Rather than giving Wendy the forum to tell us all about her heartbreak, Reichardt asks us to watch instead, requiring the viewer to fill the silence with what he or she might understand of Wendy's plight.
Reichardt and director of photography Sam Levy (with additional cinematography by Greg Schmitt) shot the film in quiet neighborhoods on the outskirts of Portland, but it really could be any sleepy town across the country. Though there appears to be very little by way of altering the scenery, instead shooting the film verite style using natural lighting and the decoration of real life, small details speak to the economic woes that plague our times. Empty storefronts, old cars, the line outside the bottle return--there is never an effort to highlight these to make a point, but the cumulative effect informs the larger work. So, too, do stray, unheralded details--a photograph, a single phone call home, half-heard conversations--hint at a backstory for Wendy, as well as for the people she encounters. The only time Reichardt arguably pushes too hard is when Wendy is nearly attacked in the middle of the night by another homeless wanderer (Larry Fessenden) who has clearly lost the majority of his marbles. His ravings about the way other people treat those on the fringe may be a little too on the nose in terms of the writing, but Reichardt smartly has Fessenden speak quietly rather than raging so that it's passable in terms of performance. The more important factor of that scene is Wendy's fear, anyway, and Michelle Williams handles that perfectly, from the fright in her eyes straight to the breakdown that follows.
Really, Wendy and Lucy would not even be half the film it is without Williams in the lead. Though the indie-minded actress doesn't always make the best choices--for every quality film on her resume, there are usually two unwatchable movies sandwiched in between--she is never the reason for the material not working. Put her in the right project, and there's no stopping her. There isn't a dishonest moment in Wendy and Lucy, not a single frame where Williams doesn't completely inhabit the character. Cast a less thoughtful actress in the role of Wendy, and you'd have a lot of scenes of some girl just standing around. With Michelle Williams in the part, there is never an instance where something isn't happening, even if it's only going on in Wendy's head.
With new technologies and new modes of expression, we're always hearing that this or that art form is going to go by the wayside, that traditional models will die out, that people no longer have the patience for material that requires thought or commitment. I've always thought that was bunk. You might as well give up on the human spirit across the board. Or, you can trust that there will always be people like Kelly Reichardt who have a fundamental need to express themselves and who are crazy enough to stick to the traditional methods to do it. It is of this that a movie like Wendy and Lucy is born, a movie that sticks its finger in the dike and keeps a little of our humanity from spilling out, both in terms of the story of individual tenacity it imparts and the fact that it even exists to tell it.