A young woman traveling through a small Oregon town with her sausage shaped golden mutt finds the dog with some intimidating folk at a campfire. Icky (Will Oldham, "Old Joy") verifies her cause for concern, but also gives her a lead for a good paying job in Alaska, the state she hopes to restart her life in. But with her cash dwindling and her car unable to start, things may be turning down a bad road for "Wendy and Lucy."
Cowriter (with Jonathan Raymond)/director Kelly Reichardt ("Old Joy") returns with another rambling character study, but her timing with the current economic crisis makes Wendy's plight an Everyman's and the poignancy and fate of human kindnesses and transgressions make "Wendy and Lucy" feel like a Northwestern "Umberto D." In the title role Michelle Williams ("Brokeback Mountain," "Synedoche, New York") is tough, vulnerable and utterly heartbreaking and with scant screen time Lucy establishes herself as one of cinema's memorable canines.
Wendy is woken up the next morning by the Walmart Security Guard (Wally Dalton, TV's "Intensity," "The Baby Dance") knocking on the window of her 1988 Honda Civic. When she tries to start the car to move, it will not. When she feeds Lucy she doesn't have enough dog food. Her funds stand at around a few hundred dollars and with her car needing repair she attempts a five finger discount at the local supermarket. Just as she reaches the doors where a smiling Lucy awaits, a self righteous stock boy, Andy (John Robinson, "Elephant"), turns her in and the store manager is forced to call the police when Andy finds three cans of dog food in her back pack. The police will not allow her to untie Lucy from the bike rack in front of the store. By the time she returns hours and hours later and a fifty dollar fine lighter, Lucy is gone.
Unlike "Old Joy's" road trip, where great stretches were photographed from within the vehicle, a series of closeup conversations interspersed with long stretches of external scenery rolling by, Reichardt shoots Wendy mostly in long shot walking from one errand to the next. She has a routine - a jaunt to the gas station rest room for morning clean up, a check on the 'We Fix Cars' auto shop that isn't open. A series of pan shots follows Wendy as she walks down the long corridor of penned dogs, but alas Lucy is not among them.
When Wendy's routine is broken, she develops a new one, checking in with the local pound where she anxiously awaits word of Lucy. The security guard, who becomes a friend of sorts, lets Wendy use his cell phone and suggests she try the scent of her clothes to draw Lucy back. She spreads her laundry about town, anchored to signs and street posts, and spends a scary night outdoors near the train yards where an unstable man (producer Larry Fessenden, "The Last Winter," "The Brave One") threatens. Reinhardt lets us hear his ramblings and occasionally shows flashes of his face in the dark, but mostly keeps her shot on Wendy's eyes peering straight ahead from the ground in her sleeping bag, building tension built upon despair.
In her cut off capris, sneakers and bowl haircut, Wendy is an androgynous throwback to pre-WWII kids wearing knickerbockers and newscaps, perhaps a subtle reference to the Great Depression. We're given a feel for what she left behind when Wendy calls home and talks to a distracted brother-in-law, her sister in the background protesting their ability to send any cash. Williams lets us know that she is used to fending for herself - she's a bit of a loner, not quick to open up - but her self-sufficiency is being sorely tested and the loss of her dog represents not only a spiralling out of control but the last vestige of warmth against a cold, cruel world. Wally Dalton, playing a role that one could just as easily picture Seymour Cassell in, makes the guard a friendly face with a restrained show of concern, and his last gesture, a surprising kindness, illustrates just how unable he is to really help. As the eccentric mechanic, Bill, Will Patton ("The Mothman Prophecies") also offers compassionate empathy but it's couched within a business exchange.
Reinhardt uses no score for "Wendy and Lucy," just Wendy's humming over the titles and once in real time. She infuses the film with harsh realities, leavened with the kindness of strangers. It's a more affecting film than "Old Joy" and Williams's performance is a restrained knockout.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) is Alaska bound with hopes of finding a job and changing her less than rosy life. Her daunting journey, though, is easier because of her beloved mutt, Lucy. When her car breaks down in a small Oregon town, she has no money to repair the vehicle. She and her best friend head off, on foot, to the grocers to get dog food. But, without much money, Wendy turns to shoplifting and is caught. This small mistake in judgment will have a huge impact on “Wendy & Lucy.”
Sophomore filmmaker Kelly Reichardt made her feature debut with the quirky, oddly appealing “Old Joy.” It was an interesting exercise and Reichardt learned a lot about telling a visual story. The result is the quiet, hypnotic “Wendy & Lucy,” a film both low-key and heart-rending. The tempo of the film is a languid day-in-the-life story that focuses on Wendy and the sad turn her once hoped-for life takes when her Lucy goes missing.
Michelle Williams (the winner of this year’s Online Film Critics Society Best Actress award) gives a fine, real performance as the unfortunate Wendy. Her affection for her Lucy is palpable and her desperation as she looks for her missing dog believable and empathetic. Williams delivers the goods and deserves the attention this fine role is getting.
While the film is a true one-hander, with the focus entirely on Wendy, several notable supporting characters help give “Wendy & Lucy” full dimension. Walter Dalton plays a kindly Walmart-esque security guard who feels for the stranded young woman and helps her in whatever meager way he can. Will Patton is serviceable as the repair shop owner who has the break the bad news to Lucy about her car. Larry Fessenden makes a surreal appearance as a physically intimidating homeless man but one with a harmless gentleness.
Techs are gritty with excellent docu-style lensing by Sam Levy. Production values are simple and straightforward, allowing the story and performances by Williams and the rest to keep your attention from start to finish. One would not think that a girl and her dog flick could strike so deeply into your heart. I give it a B+.
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