Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Kelly Reichardt & Jonathan Raymond
Full credits at IMDb
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt has the gentlest way of using film to scrutinize the American condition, probing it with people, characters, until she teases out some devastating truths. Her films are political without political utterance, which somehow maintain a modicum of optimism, too. Wendy and Lucy’s bleak but hopeful outlook is serendipitously tailor-fit to these pre-Obama days of both promise and despair, just as her last film, Old Joy (2006) was a perfect product of its time. Centered on two grown-apart friends, that film’s deceptive simplicity left it open to a wide variety of critical readings; I took it as an exploration of the culture wars, then raging under Bush’s stoking. Her latest, Wendy and Lucy, is again about two pals—this time, a girl and her dog—and once again it’s a simplistic and symbolic story, a portrait of this mean old country and its economic disparity.
Michelle Williams, her hair darkened and cropped, stars as a wearied woman, beaten down into equability, crossing the country in a rust-colored car—a tribute to the dying automotive industry?—with her dog in tow. She’s headed for work in the fisheries and canneries of Alaska, America’s final frontier. Stopping in Oregon, and low on cash, she pockets a few cans of Iams at a supermarket without paying, is caught, and spends the day in a holding cell. Returning to the scene of the crime, she finds her dog missing and spends the rest of the film trying to find her: visiting the pound, hanging up fliers, walking around town shouting her name.
As in Red, a dog takes on a hefty metaphorical load here, though with Reichardt at the helm it never feels burdensome. Still, that Wendy has lost her Lucy highlights everything else that she, and the U.S., has lost: honest pay for honest work, decency towards one another, and the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. (That she hangs one of her Lost Dog fliers underneath a different Lost Dog poster hints that the problems are systemic, as does the long lateral tracking shot of barking pups behind bars at the local pound.) The brand names that appear—Pedigree, Walgreens—feel less like product placements than mockeries, domineering symbols of undistributed American wealth, far out of the ordinary citizen’s reach. As Williams wanders a supermarket’s aisles, Reichardt, through simply pointing her camera, draws a stinging contrast between a country with such abundance and a people with so little.
She has an eye for authentic images of economic hardship: washing in gas station bathrooms, sleeping in parking lots, collecting roadside bottles and cans for the deposit and the line of crushed men waiting to use the bottle return machines, so vividly represented that they nearly can be smelled. Reichardt, working again with writer Jonathan Raymond (who also penned the story on which the film is based), posits these hardships as new, or at least atavistic. The older folk in the film have a quality of mercy missing from the younger ancillary characters, particularly the callous supermarket employee who turns her in for shoplifting and insists on making an example of her. More than any of the dog troubles, surprisingly, the film’s most moving moment comes when Wally Dalton, an elderly parking lot security guard whom Williams befriends, gives our heroine all the help he can—$7, cash. People want to help when they’re able, but their own economic condition makes it difficult to do so. The whole country is down and out.
Simply observing the hardscrabble life of one off-the-grid yet prototypically luckless American, Reichardt illuminates the national condition—the vulnerability and heartbreaking loneliness necessitated by penury. There might be some sort of illegal immigration parallel to be drawn at the end (in which Oregon is Mexico and Alaska is the continental 48), among others; once again, Reichardt’s spare style lends itself to multiple readings. And once again she clings to hope, too. As depressing as Wendy and Lucy can be, it doesn’t wallow in misery or pity; the director ultimately suggests that we could possibly make this country great again. That is, while we’re losing the battles, the winnable war rages on as long as we keep fighting. Grade: A-
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