Perhaps, "there but for the grace of God, go I" should be the tagline for filmmaker Kelly Reichardt's sharp reflection on the human condition. Heartbreaking, compassionate and cautionary, Wendy and Lucy captures the anxious zeitgeist of America today, offering a small-scale drama about a young woman living so precariously on the edge that she's in danger of falling off at any moment.
The plot couldn't be simpler. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young Indiana drifter headed to Alaska for a job with her yellow lab mutt, Lucy. Far from the starry-eyed but economically entitled character Emile Hirsch played in Into the Wild, Wendy is the underprivileged casualty of our country's pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. She has a vague notion of where she might find stability but few resources to get there. When her beat-up Honda dies in a depressed Oregon town, Wendy is stranded until a nearby repair shop opens. Running low on cash, she shoplifts a couple of cans of dog food and a piece of jerky at a nearby market, and gets caught by the kind of teenage stock boy that'd make Dick Cheney proud. Arrested, she's forced to leave Lucy tied up outside. Hours later, when she finally returns, her dog is gone. The rest of the movie follows Wendy's desperate attempts to find Lucy, the people she encounters — some callous, some kind — and the setbacks she's forced to deal with.
Less inventive than Reichardt's last film, the similarly low-key Old Joy, many will find Wendy and Lucy a difficult slog. For some, however, there's a real world that'll haunt you for days after seeing it. Sure, nothing much happens in the conventional narrative sense, yet Wendy's minor calamities carry with them incredible dramatic weight if you calibrate your expectations accordingly. Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond present their story as if it were rooted in the real world, moving in real time. Everyday mishaps are magnified by Wendy's poverty and her simplest actions carry with them potentially dramatic consequences. Whether it's the sad, hand-scratched "lost dog" posters she hangs around town, the mysteriously bandaged wound she picks at on her ankle or the six dollars a security guard shoves into her hand, Reichardt asks us to respond to Wendy — and, in turn, a whole strata of our society — with empathy and kindness rather than dismissive indifference. Wendy and Lucy acknowledges that there is a side of America that is rooted in loss, loneliness and lack of opportunity. A brief but awkward call home Wendy makes to her unsympathetic sister makes even clearer that economic hardship brings both societal and personal instability.
None of this would work without Williams' painfully authentic performance. She plays Wendy as a gentle but self-possessed young woman who combats despair and fear with solemn defiance. In the face of losing the only creature on earth that shows her love, Wendy is both determined but wary of hope. Even a creepy nighttime encounter with an unhinged homeless man (played by indie director Larry Fessenden) is played with masterful restraint as Williams contains her sobbing release until she reaches the sanctuary of gas station bathroom.
Hollywood films rarely venture into the world of people living on the margins. Fewer do it honestly and too often fall into romantic notions of poverty and the triumph of human spirit. While the stakes in Wendy and Lucy may, on their surface, seem frivolously low to an audience that can afford $10 for a movie ticket, for Wendy they are profound. One has only to compare Reichardt's film with the Dickensian fantasy of Slumdog Millionaire to witness the immense rift between poverty as entertainment and well-informed fiction. For some, the loss of a dog means far more than gangsters with guns and a shot at winning a million-dollar game show.
Determined but directionless, Wendy demonstrates that sometimes it's the small choices to keep moving ahead that are the most heroic. She and people like her are truly the meek the Bible was referring to.
Opens Friday, Feb. 13, at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.