Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Wendy and Lucy’ (2008)

18May09

Wendy and Lucy is a story about a girl and her dog. But it’s not one of those movies about a girl and her dog. It’s not a cutesy, feel-good affair about the bonds of friendship between human and animal. While Lucy may be Wendy’s only friend, she functions more as a symbol for the life that Wendy left behind when she started on her journey to Alaska to find work. The road trip is long and money is tight, putting Wendy in a precarious financial situation. Any unexpected expense could break her budget, and when her car breaks down in a small town in Oregon, Wendy finds that her circumstances quickly become dire.

Director Kelly Reichardt employs a minimalist, almost Dogma 95-like style, which keeps this unashamedly political tale from becoming too schmaltzy or too preachy. Instead, Reichardt crafts a quietly heartbreaking and engrossing film that never hits a wrong note. Wendy and Lucy isn’t designed to be a tearjerker, but I found myself crying quite a bit because of how accurately Reichardt captures the disdain with which poor people are treated. When Wendy runs out of food for Lucy, she tries to shoplift a few cans of dog food and gets caught. The young, zealous store clerk sneers that if people can’t afford a dog then they shouldn’t own one, implying that poor people are less deserving of basic human needs like companionship. Most people would interpret Wendy’s decision to leave Lucy with a foster family as a responsible one, but it also feels like Wendy has finally been broken, convinced that she deserves a life stripped of all comfort.

Credit for the emotional punch this film delivers also belongs to Michelle Williams. This role is not a glamorous one. Worried that Williams would be too pretty, Reichardt asked her not to wear any make-up. Her hair is cut in a messy, androgynous mop, and she wears unflattering clothing that makes her knees seem a little too knobby. Wendy spends most of her time alone, rarely interacting with other people. But even without the luxury of revealing Wendy’s mental state through interpersonal dynamics, Williams manages to make all of Wendy’s emotions easily accessible to the audience, conveying her sadness and loneliness through her eyes and her body language. Just like her performances in Brokeback Mountain and Land of Plenty, Williams’ work here proves that she is an actress to watch.

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