Wendy and Lucy

We don’t know how Wendy (Michelle Williams) got into her fix, but it hardly seems to matter: she’s in it, and all she can do is deal with it. From Indiana originally, Wendy is headed to Alaska, where she hears there are plenty of jobs in the fish-canning industry. She has her dog Lucy, a twenty-year-old car on the verge of coughing up blood, and a little over five hundred dollars. Over the course of Wendy and Lucy, Wendy will lose her dog, her car, and, little by little, her money. The bulk of the movie follows Wendy as she tries to find Lucy, last seen tied up outside a grocery store where Wendy got busted for shoplifting dog food. Hours later, when Wendy finally returns from the police station, Lucy’s gone.

The third feature by indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), Wendy and Lucy is a quiet heartbreaker with a keen sense of the reality of lives like Wendy’s. Really, a film like this, in which we’re told exactly how much things cost and exactly how much is in Wendy’s budget to pay for them, couldn’t be better timed. True, we’re going to have a new president soon, but the many, many jobless and homeless people aren’t suddenly going to get cushy gigs on January 20 — of 2009 or maybe 2010. Reichardt is a realist, and her movies disregard hope and optimism, which doesn’t mean they’re pessimistic or hopeless, either. Her films see things as they are, good or bad.

The movie is mainly a matter of Michelle Williams playing, or rather underplaying, off of various people Wendy encounters in Portland, Oregon. Aside from the grocery-store clerk who busts her — who seems to go out of his way to “make an example” of her (to whom?) — Wendy barely speaks to anyone above a murmur. She looks washed-out, defeated, yet maybe still young enough to turn things around. Williams is on very low simmer here; Wendy is too exhausted to express how frightened she is, but Williams’ eyes tell most of the story. As in Old Joy, there’s no manufactured drama here — no romance on the road, no violence, no big acting jags for Williams. She just inhabits Wendy and is true to her from moment to moment. It’s heroic work, though sure to be overlooked and underrated.

There’s sufficient drama simply in Wendy’s quest to find Lucy and to stay semi-above-water financially in the process. With the aforementioned exception, most everyone Wendy meets seems to take pity on her (even the store manager doesn’t appear eager to press charges), and this feels right. It’s not that a cast of invented characters is aligned against Wendy — it’s the whole system, of which kind but helpless people are a part. People like a Walgreen’s security guard (nicely played by Wally Dalton), who forbids her from sleeping in her car in the parking lot but otherwise helps her as best he can, or a mechanic (Will Patton) who sees how trashed Wendy’s engine is but also sees she can’t begin to pay for repairs, don’t extend any whopping Hollywood favors to her — they have to eat and get by, too. But that doesn’t mean they have to be mean to her. Even the movie’s tensest scene, when a wacko in the woods (producer Larry Fessenden) happens across a sleeping Wendy, doesn’t play out the way our movie-trained minds predict it will.

Some people, soft-hearted dog lovers such as myself, will want to know in advance: Does the dog die? I can say that if that’s what you’re worried about, don’t let that keep you from seeing the movie. This is not a spoiler so much as a reassurance that this isn’t that kind of film. (The dog is the same Lucy, I believe, who accompanied the men of Old Joy into the Oregon woods. I’m all for a Lucy trilogy, actually.) Wendy and Lucy ends on a bittersweet and uncertain note, and we hope that Wendy makes good on her promise. Will she? Wendy doesn’t know. Reichardt doesn’t know. And I don’t know. Things may get better for Wendy. They may not. If you’re looking for a happy, easy ending, or a happy, easy answer, look elsewhere.

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