Wendy and Lucy (2008)

“Wendy & Lucy,” the new feature from director Kelly Reichardt, who has previously helmed “Old Joy,” was named one of the Top Ten Movies by a jury of the American Film Institute.
When the tale begins, Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy (the helmer’s own dog) are on a cross-country trek from Indiana to Alaska in search of something better. Better than what, we’re never really told. There are hints of tough economic times in her home state and an estrangement from a sister, but we’re never given many more details. Suffice is to say that things are relatively booming in Alaska, and Wendy feels that moving might bring a better future.
Wendy runs into trouble upon arrival in a small Oregon town. Her car, which doubles as her home, breaks down, and then, in short order, she gets busted shoplifting and loses her dear Lucy. With each passing crisis, her already-shoestring budget, which she counts down to the penny, gets nibbled away. And with each problem seemingly bigger than the last, it becomes apparent just how over the head Wendy is.
Bumming it across America might seem like a good idea on TV, but Wendy clearly wasn’t prepared for it. She’s motoring across the continent in a 20-year-old junky car, she can’t afford to take care of herself, let alone a dog. She isn’t a light traveler, though; among her mementos are big photo albums.
The film has rich and dense texture. Reichardt and her co-writer Jonathan Raymond (who also co-penned “Old Joy”) have etched on strong character, Wendy, for the audience to follow closely. But neither Wendy nor her motivations are fully depicted, which colors our perception of Wendy, particularly when the movie ends on a sad, melancholy manner.
The gifted Michelle Williams turns in a sharp performance that goes a long way to making us care about Wendy, pouring everything into the role. Remarkably, despite the Wendy’s many mishaps, Williams doesn’t play her as the victim, and doesn’t slide into self-pity, either. Williams convincingly navigates this thin line, and her performance is one of the best of 2008.
Ultimately, “Wendy & Lucy” is not just about a character, at least not in the traditional sense of mainstream narrative. As she did with Mark (Daniel London) and Curt (Will Oldham) in “Old Joy,” Reichardt uses Wendy in “Wendy & Lucy” as a way to explore American society in the early 21st century.
In “Old Joy,” Mark and Curt are old friends who have grown apart, but try to strengthen their friendship through a camping trip in the Oregon forests. This seemingly simple premise is actually a mask for exploring what it means to be an individual in modern America. Both Mark and Curt were freewheeling’ guys at one point in their lives. Then, Curt stayed on that path, hiking and camping and bumming off friends and smoking pot. In contrast, Mark went the way of the “Responsible Adult”—he got married, settled down in a job, and prepared for fatherhood. Curt can’t stand Mark’s suburban domestication; Mark can’t understand why Curt is still Curt. But despite their differences, they showcase the quandary of modern American individuality: Mark embraced the “American Dream” and has had his identity all but snuffed out, while Curt clings to his identity and as a result has been relegated to being an aimless drifter who exists as a marginalized figure in our modern society.
“Wendy & Lucy” darkens that film’s question by changing gender and adding youth to the equation. Wendy exists in a constant state of identity turmoil. On one side is her sister, who is settled down and married. On another is a group of pierced and inked transients she meets, who are living dangerously, sort of hand to mouth. She comes into conflict with a young, clean-cut teen that works at a supermarket and tries to validate his citizenship by pushing his boss to make “an example” out of Wendy when she’s caught shoplifting. Wendy is in the center of a bizarre triangle, tugged between domesticity, marginalization, and existence as a post-9/11 pod person.
At the core of the film is the essential question of individuality. Wendy can be domestic and culturally subservient, or she can be culturally independent and ignored by mainstream society. What “Wendy & Lucy” adds to this choice, which Reichardt first posed in “Old Joy,” is that in Bush’s America young people have to make this decision too early in their lives. Mark and Curt were nearing middle age and they’ve lived a little. In contrast, Wendy, the hobos, and the kid in the supermarket are younger and our society is trying to rob them of the experience to experience. Where Wendy ends up, how she gets there, and what she leaves behind gives “Wendy & Lucy” a strikingly more dramatic and depressing coda than the last moments of “Old Joy.”
With “Wendy & Lucy,” Reichardt really harnesses the power of the indie pulpit by delivering a deceptively simple narrative as a means to challenge viewers perceptions of their world, while demonstrating how good honest independent filmmaking can be. In the process, she solidifies herself as one of the most original and authentic cinematic voices today.

Cast

Michelle Williams (Wendy)
Will Patton (Mechanic)
Will Oldham (Icky)
Wally Dalton (Security Guard)
Credits

Oscilloscope Pictures presents a Field Guide Films/Film Science/Glass Eye Pix production
Producers: Larry Fessenden, Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani
Executive Producers: Joshua Blum, Todd Haynes, Phil Morrison, Rajen Savjani
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond
Cinematography: Sam Levy
Running time: 80 minutes