Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams
Wendy and Lucy is a film of quiet devastation and effective simplicity. It is the story of a young woman standing at the abyss and the dog that represents the last shred of stability in her life. It is exactly the movie that it needs to be, no more and no less, and its central performance by Michelle Williams is a thing of absolute beauty. It’s the kind of performance that makes you lament that a) there are so few good roles for women and b) whenever good roles for women come around, they all come around at the same time and compete with each other for a limited amount of attention, as was the case in 2008.
Williams is Wendy, a young woman making her way to Alaska for work with nothing but her car, her dog, and about five hundred dollars. As she’s passing through Oregon her car breaks down, putting her already limited funds at risk. She’ll have to have the car towed to a shop to have a couple of parts replaced, which would be worrying enough in and of itself but she’s also out of dog food, can’t afford to put a roof over her head for the time it will take to fix her car, and has no one to turn to. At one point she makes a call to her brother, but once his wife picks up the other line to join the conversation it becomes clear that this is a dead end as far as help is concerned. Wendy is entirely on her own except for Lucy.
Desperate, Wendy goes to a grocery store and shoplifts some dog food. She’s caught on the way out by an overzealous teenage clerk, drunk on his own minimal sense of power, who sanctimoniously declares that if someone can’t afford dog food then they shouldn’t have a dog in the first place. He pressures his manager to enforce their zero tolerance policy and calls the police, who take Wendy away while Lucy remains tied up outside the store. By the time Wendy is released, Lucy is gone and the rest of the film passes with her trying to find her dog and trying to keep it together as things continue to fall apart.
The material of this story would provide a lesser actor with an opportunity to gnash and over-emote from one end of the film to the other, but Williams smartly underplays it. Played by Williams, Wendy is a woman struggling valiantly to retain what is left of her dignity and just make it to the light at the end of the tunnel. She makes mistakes to be sure, but she’s a decent person and that shines out of her. There is a reason why most of the people she encounters are willing to help her in small, unasked for ways and it goes beyond them simply feeling sorry for her. She isn’t pathetic – though in other hands she easily could have been – she’s just a good person who has fallen on extremely hard times and finds herself forced to make one difficult choice after another.
Just as Williams’ performance is understated, so is the direction by Kelly Reichardt, who takes a sit back and watch kind of approach to the action. There isn’t a lot of stylistic interference with the story, no unnecessary padding, no colourful and eccentric supporting characters. The film is confident enough in itself to just be what it is, a portrait of a woman in dire straits, and because it doesn’t dilute its meaning by trying to be about everything, it is effective in capturing the spirit of these uncertain financial times. Though it received little in the way of a marketting push while it was in theaters, it's a film that will stand the test of time and I have no doubt that it will find an audience now that it's on DVD. If you see it in the video store, don't hesitate to rent it.