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Wendy and Lucy (2008)

  • Review: *** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Will Oldham, John Robinson, Wally Dalton, Larry Fessenden
  • Director: Kelly Reichardt
  • Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond
  • Length: 80 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R for language.

A fractured story about a destitute woman and her emotional attachment to her dog form the backbone of Kelly Reichardt’s follow up to her indie sensation Old Joy.

Wendy and Lucy are the names of the story’s main protagonist and her loving pooch. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is traveling across country heading towards Alaska where the promise of lucrative work awaits. Her faithful companion Lucy travels with her on her limited budget in her clunker of a car, which, inconveniently, breaks down in a medium-sized town in the American Northwest.

With nowhere to stay, Wendy camps the night in her car in a parking lot. She’s awoken in the morning by a security guard (Wally Dalton) who informs her she is not allowed to sleep there. When she tries to start her car and move it, she discovers it will not start and she is forced to push it out onto the street with the help of the kindly, but rules-bound guard.

She uses a gas station lavatory to wash up, brush her teeth and get ready, only to discover upon her return to the car that she has no food left in her massive bag of dog food. She enters the grocery store and, being strapped on cash, attempts to walk out without paying for her can of dog food. She’s arrested and booked while poor Lucy is left tied up outside the grocery store. And, unsurprisingly, when she returns later that day to retrieve her, Lucy has gone missing.

Wendy and Lucy isn’t fractured in the way one would normally expect, jumping around through different points in time, creating a confusing narrative. The film is fairly straight forward in that respect. The fracturing comes from the lack of traditional backstory and resolution. We start with Wendy and Lucy already on the brink of failure. We don’t have a real grasp of where the story has come from and what drove Wendy to embark on her journey in the first place. And when Wendy moves on at the end of the film, there is no sense of resolution or emotional triumph that one would hope for from a film like this.

Director Kelly Reichardt, along with her Old Joy screenwriting partner Jonathan Raymond, entirely intended to tell the story this way. Creating a slice of life has become the bread and butter of Indie filmmaking as many of the film styles that were a part of that movement have moved into the foreground of modern filmmaking, enmeshing themselves quite well. However, because of a lack of common form, films like Wendy and Lucy don’t easily find mainstream audiences and seldom earn recognition from prominent awards-giving bodies. Williams is a lone exception, having earned a heap of praise for her work in the film and even a few awards.

And, I can’t say that I disagree. Williams is exposed and emotionally detailed in her portrayal of the world-weary lass desperately searching for her only real love in life. There’s a wounded vulnerability to her performance that instantly draws you into her drama and keeps you locked there until she can resolve her dilemma. That she wasn’t more heavily touted for awards consideration is disappointing as hers is one of the year’s best female performances.

In our current economic climate, Wendy and Lucy is a strangely fitting feature. Although it has failed at the box office, it is a thought provoking examination of what could be in store or already is in effect for any one of the millions of Americans in this country who find themselves unemployed. That connection may be too tender a subject for most audiences, but when examining films like Wendy and Lucy, it’s imperative for people to see this kind of film in hopes of seeing how desperate things can become and how imperative it is for those who are able to do something do it.

Perhaps the film is a bit too real; the emotion a bit too raw; the situations a bit too relevant. You can’t watch Wendy and Lucy without being touched by the story. You feel for Wendy in her struggles and hope beyond all else that she can recover her dog, but when the moment of truth actually arrives, the depressive nature of the story keeps going and you’re left with a bitter sense of sorrow for the film’s titular characters. This isn’t the kind of film you want to watch if you’re already down in the dumps for it will leave you there and kick you a couple of times before the film concludes. Still, it has to be seen. It has to be examined. It has to be understood. It has to have an impact. That is what filmmaking as art is supposed to stand for.