Saturday, May 09, 2009

Review - Wendy and Lucy

I fear I've done Wendy and Lucy a disservice. When I first saw the film during last year's London Film Festival, I described it as "a modest but memorable piece of work", as if the film's small scale was something to be held against it, something preventing it from ever being considered "great." But if the film is such a minor achievement, then why did it stay in my thoughts and my heart long after the screening? After a second screening of the film I've concluded that Wendy and Lucy is the perfect size for the story it needs to tell. While other filmmakers are writing the cinematic equivalent of novels, Kelly Reichardt trades in short stories – focused, intimate dramas, packing an emotional punch that belies their scale.

Like Reichardt's earlier film
Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy is a story about two characters going on a journey, although they don't manage to get very far during the picture's 80 minutes. All we know about Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her pet dog is that they have come from Indiana and their destination is Alaska, where Wendy hopes to find some steady work. We don't know how long they have been on the road, but when Wendy wakes up in the car that they both sleep and travel in, and sleepily begins pulling Lucy's breakfast out of the trunk, before finding a public toilet to wash in, it has the feel of a process she has gone through many times before. As played by Williams, with short dark hair framing her open face, it's hard to believe that Wendy could survive for long on the open road. She looks far too delicate and frail, and you instantly feel for her. When she arrives in Oregon, where Wendy and Lucy is set, things quickly begin to fall apart for her. Her car breaks down, necessitating repairs she can't afford, and when she shoplifts a few items to feed Lucy, she is caught and arrested. The biggest hammer blow comes when Wendy is processed and finally released; she returns to the spot where she left Lucy, and her beloved companion is gone.

A lost dog could easily be used as an emotional shortcut, but Reichardt keeps
Wendy and Lucy's emotions in check. The sight of Wendy wandering the unfamiliar streets, forlornly crying Lucy's name, is upsetting in itself, but the real sadness of the film comes from how lost and helpless Wendy is, and how cruel people can be to those already cut off at the bottom of the social ladder. "If people can't afford dog food then they shouldn't have a dog" states the shop assistant who catches Wendy in the act, without even attempting to consider the position she is in, and when she calls home, in need of a friendly voice, her sister cuts her off before she can ask for money. In such an environment, simple acts of kindness can feel like a drink of water in the desert, and unexpected assistance comes from an elderly security guard (Wally Dalton), who offers Wendy the use of his phone, words of advice and – above all – a friendly ear.

Reichardt imbues her film with a sure sense of place, and her measured, minimalist directorial style draws the viewers into Wendy's story. Everything about
Wendy and Lucy feels natural and true, the whole cast appear to be completely comfortable in their characters' skin, and the narrative has the resonance of a tale that could be occurring anywhere. Wendy and Lucy is quiet and contemplative, but through its accumulation of mundane details and seemingly banal encounters, Reichardt gradually builds a hauntingly affecting portrait of a life lived on the margins, and she forces us to care deeply about Wendy's fate. As such, I have been moved to tears by the film both times I have watched it; once, when the security guard offers Wendy a couple of dollars to help her on her way, and later at the picture's wrenchingly sad climax. Reichardt doesn't need music or any other external manipulation to elicit to manipulate us into feeling this way; it's all there to be seen in the subtle reactions on Michelle Williams' face. Her performance is extraordinary – in a just world she would have received Oscar recognition for it – but even if Wendy and Lucy was too small scale to trouble the Academy voters, there's now no doubt in my mind that this is one of the great films of the year.