Wendy and Lucy
2008, R, 80 min. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Starring Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Wally Dalton, Will Oldham, John Robinson, Larry Fessenden.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Feb. 20, 2009
Is Wendy and Lucy the Bicycle Thieves of the New Recession Cinema? Like De Sica’s neorealist tragedy about postwar Italy, Wendy and Lucy expertly (and presciently) illustrates the current American climate by telling a very small-scale story – the micro in the macro – about the stranglehold of poverty and how bad luck begets bad decisions. It’s a minimalist portrait of a girl named Wendy (played by the elfin, astonishingly un-self-conscious Williams) and her dog, Lucy. They’re living out of Wendy’s beat-up car, on their way to Alaska, where Wendy has heard there is work to be had at the canneries. Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond (who penned the source short story) provide very little background detail (maybe too little). What we need to know is this: Wendy is untethered. A phone call to a sister in another state makes it clear that Wendy has no support system. Lucy isn’t a luxury; she’s a lifeline – Wendy’s one tie to a normalizing routine, her one constant in an endless stream of towns. If Bicycle Thieves was, at least in part, about a father’s pride, then Wendy and Lucy is about a mother’s sacrifice. Them’s that aren’t dog people might balk at the word choice – more accurately, Wendy is master, I suppose, of Lucy the dog, but that doesn’t capture the tenor of their relationship; one of Wendy and Lucy’s marvels is the way in which it poetically evinces that bond without ever sentimentalizing it. Early on, Lucy disappears in one of those nameless gray-and-green Pacific Northwest towns, and Wendy is forced to stop in her tracks. Because Wendy and Lucy is so lean on plot and dialogue, there are long spaces to contemplate Wendy and her situation, and the logistics are mind-boggling: Her car goes into the shop, and suddenly she has nowhere to sleep. Her dog goes missing, and she has no cell phone to provide as contact number for the local animal shelter. Her days become about plastering the town with homemade signs and making the long trek to the shelter, all the while carefully tracking her dwindling finances in a notebook. There is no wiggle room and no safety net. The film’s prevailing sensation is one of an ever-upticking sense of being alone and trapped; at times it becomes unbearable. (Wendy and Lucy has none of the goofy, giddy beats of Reichardt’s previous film, Old Joy, though they are equally lovely to look at.) There are kindnesses from strangers, to be sure – nothing movie-cornpone, just the small but significant gestures humans who are also hurting do for others, because they can. Character actor Patton plays one, and his appearance is distracting: Wendy and Lucy feels so naturalistic that his familiarity is a niggling reminder that this is only a movie. But mostly the film feels the opposite of that – like real life when you’re backed into a corner. Maybe I’m more susceptible: As a single woman living with debt and a dog named Lu, Wendy and Lucy tapped then unfurled the knot of terror that lives in my stomach. After the frankly gutting experience of watching Reichardt’s spare, savaging film, I spent a long time trying to put that knot back in its place, back in the pit of my stomach where it belongs. (See "The American Con of Bootstrap Optimism," Feb. 20, for an interview with the director.)