Film Reviews

Wendy and Lucy Kelly Reichardt

Rating - 8/10

The narrative of Kelly Reichardt’s films can be described in a sentence or two but the contemplative power which her stories leave behind is far-reaching. In 2006’s Old Joy, Reichardt told the simple story of two old friends who went on a camping trip together, visited some hot springs and returned home. Yet the film explored in poignant depth a strained friendship, revealing the tension between responsibility and freedom from society and all its constructs and the loss that accompanies either choice. So much of the meaning in Recihardt’s work is found in what she leaves unsaid, in the silence and spaces of her films. And in her latest movie, Wendy and Lucy, the narrative is once again simple but with her wonderfully economic style, Recihardt invests so much meaning and emotion in the seemingly most ordinary of moments. It is because of her gift as a director that Wendy and Lucy reveals itself to be heartbreakingly poetic.

Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a quiet loner heading to Alaska in hopes of finding work, in a beat-up old economy car with her beloved dog Lucy. Her car breaks down in small town Oregon and she is coasting on such a thin budget that she has to sleep in her car in a lone parking lot, waiting for the mechanic to open the following morning. The petrol station toilet is her daily wash and change room and she spends the morning trying to pick up some empty cans for cash.
While waiting to hear back on her car, Wendy drifts into the local supermarket and pockets some dog food. However the haughty young shop assistant that works there catches her and takes her to her boss who more reluctantly agrees that they must enforce the rules. Lucy is taken to the local police station where she is fingerprinted and fined. She is finally released and returns to the store to find that Lucy is missing from the place she tied her up out front. And thus Wendy embarks on a journey to find her companion, aided only a by a kind security guard who reassures her Lucy will turn up and lets her use his phone to call the pound.
This seemingly simple film has so much to say about living life on the fringes of society. Without a phone, address or job, Wendy is disconnected from the community at large. One of the film’s crucial lines is when the self-righteus shop assistant, barely out of highschool, reprimands her for stealing: “The rules apply to everyone equally. If a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog.” These words are both cruel and ironic, highlighting Wendy’s tragic plight. For people like Wendy, the rules of life do not really apply equally. As this film illustrates, life can quickly becomes one set of cascading obstacles and ever-narrowing options until you reach the point where the most simple, daily decisions become heartbreaking ultimatums. While sympathising with Wendy, the security guard sums up her predicament pretty well when he states, “You can’t get an address without an address, you can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.”
Even when Wendy is quietly humiliated while under arrest and on the verge of a tearful breakdown when she loses Lucy, Williams’ invests her character with too much dignity to let her choke up. Her performance is so undramatic and self contained, that coupled with the film’s long shots, the effect almost seems documentary like at times. But one should not make a mistake – Williams is delivering a remarkable performance. She manages to captures a fragility and sullen wariness in her character but also a quiet determination and grit.
There is a pivotal scene toward the end of the film where Wendy’s car is at the mechanic’s overnight and she is forced to sleep in the woods. In the pitch black, with only the rattle of a train in the background, a menacing figure approaches Wendy. Reichardt closes in on William’s face and her look of fear and vulnerability astounds and shatters. Without uttering a sound, Williams practically wails with desperation. This scene illustrates just how truly terrifying Wendy’s plight is and how alone she is in the world.
Similar to Old Joy, but perhaps even more so here, Reichardt deliberately obscures the circumstances that brought Wendy to this place and why she wants to go to Alaska. At one point she calls her estranged sister and brother-in-law which only affirms her rootlessness to the audience. But leaving biographical detail to the bare minimum serves Wendy and Lucy perfectly. Reichardt’s films work as these beautiful snapshots of lives in transition, moments in time. While self-contained, the film reverberates with a heartbreaking, selfless resonance. The final scene features a frame of Williams riding a freight train out of Oregon and the picture resounds with the most fragile sense of hope. This scene, of passing landscape, is like everything else in this modest film: fully and beautifully realised.