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Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)


     Kelly Reichardt, one of the true mavericks of the ailing American independent film scene, delivers what is easily her most accomplished work yet with Wendy and Lucy. Stripped down, but thematically rich, it’s able to produce reverberations about America at large, while never betraying its ultra-specific scenario. Reichardt begins with a simple setup. Financially strapped drifter Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy are traveling by car to Alaska, hoping to find employment in a cannery. She wakes, at the start of the film, to discover that her vehicle has broken down somewhere near the Oregon/Washington border, setting off a series of bureaucratic tangles that demonstrate just how close she is to falling into financial and social oblivion. This brief exposition results in a small story, focused on minutiae, but thanks to sterling execution and a tone that deploys exactly the right amount of sentimentality, Reichardt is able to make it feel utterly universal.


     From the start of Wendy and Lucy, the audience is made acutely aware of Wendy’s precarious financial situation. As a result, each subsequent expense that she’s forced to incur becomes cause for alarm, since each drags her closer to ruin. Throughout the film, she makes tough choices, which are doubly heartbreaking because they pivot on the decision to spend a few dollars. The movie’s determined focus on Wendy’s place in society and its superb sense of location (the settings include such everyday locales as a grocery store, a dog pound, a service station, and the woods near Wendy’s broken-down car) place the film squarely in the tradition of the Italian Neorealist filmmakers. While the notion of a modern day, American-set Umberto D sounds ridiculous and overly precious on paper, in Reichardt’s hands, it feels a natural progression of the genre. Among today’s filmmakers, only Belgium’s Dardenne brothers would seem capable of orchestrating this kind of effortless, simultaneously expansive and utilitarian character drama. Reichardt’s similarly minimalist and socially aware Old Joy was hobbled with a litany of symbolic missteps (i.e. the political radio broadcasts, the on-the-nose dialogue scenes, the exaggerated relationship the lead has with his wife, etc...). Thankfully, any such stumbles are absent here. This film unfolds with the subtle grace that only a master storyteller can achieve.


     It is some kind of miracle that a movie set in America in this day and age can feel as elemental as Wendy and Lucy. The spirit of westward expansion embodied by Wendy renders the film a distinctly American expression, though. It’s equally incredible that a story featuring a major star could place so much importance on poverty without shaming itself, but Reichardt guides Williams to do what is easily her best work. Her soulful, understated performance feels lived in. It’s as if Wendy’s been defeated so often in her life that she scarcely continues to fight. Williams, eyes to the floor, anchors every scene in the movie, never for a second pushing against the boundaries of believability. Even as Wendy’s desperate situation magnifies every triumph and setback, Williams remains a remarkably grounded presence. It is quite likely the year’s best screen acting. Wendy and Lucy may be a small movie, but it feels about as perfectly conceived as a small movie can be. Call it a minorsterpiece, if you will.



Jeremy Heilman