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An American Hero: Wendy and Lucy

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An American Hero: Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt’s existential road movie starring Michelle Williams as the titular Wendy, an Indiana woman heading to find work in Alaska, is the American cousin to the Dardenne brothers’ L’Enfant. Both films are quiet, simmering, sociological thrillers featuring hamster-on-a-treadmill protagonists whose odysseys to recover loved ones are set in motion by a single, desperate, money-related screw up. Like the Dardennes, Reichardt is interested in studying the intricacies of everyday life for those living on the margins—and society’s cold indifference to their very existence.

Even the funniest scenes in Wendy and Lucy are sad and poignant. “Oh, look, there’s a lady in the car,” a teenager remarks to his buddies when he notices Wendy literally asleep behind the wheel of her broken-down auto, nonchalantly returning to his conversation as if he’d just pointed out a stray dog. The car mechanic Wendy approaches has a hilarious exchange on the phone right in front of her, purposely ignoring her. Even when he hangs up he doesn’t meet Wendy’s gaze, merely tells her to “talk, I’m listening” while he starts on his paperwork. People like Wendy with no bank account, no home address (“Can’t get a job without an address anyway,” Wendy says to one of the few strangers to show any empathy, an elderly security guard happy just to have his minimum wage, 8-8 job), not even a cell are basically sub-human. Yet we rarely think about how poor itinerant workers like Wendy are treated because, as Reichardt deftly shows, how can you think about people who don’t exist?

Wendy lives in a parallel world—and yet nearly everyone she encounters who deigns to acknowledge her speaks like she’s a part of their own universe rather than attempting to understand hers. The mechanic offers Wendy a deal of “only” thirty dollars to tow her car, as if thirty bucks is a pittance. When she’s forced to pay a fifty-dollar fine an administrator tells her she can use a credit card. The most innocuous statements reveal an outrageous level of unconscious arrogance—even within Wendy’s own family. As her world falls apart she reaches out for some connection, to hear the sound of a familiar voice, only to have her sister, who assumes she’s calling for a handout, dismiss her outright.

The irony is that Wendy, who recycles cans and scrounges for spare change, is anything but a beggar. She’s so down on her luck she has to steal dog food for her beloved mutt Lucy, yet she never complains, remains stoic in the face of brutal emotional pain. When the kindly security guard offers the use of his mobile she immediately protests. Wendy’s so accustomed to using the pay phone, doing what she has to do to survive, not relying on the kindness of strangers, that she’s taken aback when someone offers help. All this is told not just through the patient, novelistic script (based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond who co-wrote the screenplay), but also through Williams’ mesmerizing, nuanced performance, through body language that shows Wendy’s backstory better than any words ever could. It’s interesting that at the screening and Q&A I attended, Michelle Williams said that Wendy’s ever-present Ace bandage around her ankle was a remnant of one of her “bad ideas”—to give Wendy a limp. Reichardt had objected, said she didn’t want anything “show-offy.” And in this little anecdote lies the reason Reichardt is such a formidable auteur.

For as good as Williams is, the true star of Wendy and Lucy is Reichardt’s exquisite filmmaking. Williams is a big piece of the celluloid puzzle but she isn’t the puzzle itself. The movie is less about Wendy than about the environment surrounding her, how outside forces collide with human flesh, bringing us to a deeper understanding of ourselves. Reichardt gently molds Williams within her lens, shapes her amidst the breathtaking Oregon landscape and the naturalistic small town atmosphere, placing her into a larger frame as a painter would. A slow dolly through a dog pound followed by a long shot of a disheartened Wendy leaving connects us to harsh realities often swept under the rug. Reichardt’s lush sound design (from barely perceptible cricket chirps to the shriek of rail cars, like a musical score with its own crescendos) weds the whine of a speeding train to a monologue by a sinister drifter played by Larry Fessenden (who’s practically cornered the indie market on bogeymen) until the deafening roar overwhelms his words, a human threat taking on a nightmarish dimension.

And yet the best scene in this extraordinary film occurs at the end, as, in a single, life-changing moment, Wendy goes from ecstatic relief to unselfish sacrifice. It’s heartbreaking to watch Williams’ physical, visceral transformation; it makes Wendy a true American hero, a woman who understands that life decisions have consequences and the best you can do is to put the needs of those you love above your own emotional desires. There’s not a drop of self-pity in Wendy’s blood; she doesn’t expect to have her cake and eat it, too (and so is living more in reality than most people with cellphones and a bed to call their own). The height of arrogance is this false, modern-day notion that we don’t have to sacrifice, that we can buy now and pay later, that we can eat what we want, pop a cholesterol pill and work it off at the gym, that we can have the career now and the kids in-vitro after forty (i.e., options available if you have money). Interestingly, Reichardt (who cast her own dog opposite Williams and worked for free) supports herself through teaching, not filmmaking. While so many lesser talents make their living solely behind the lens, I’m sure Reichardt would be the last to dwell on this. Sacrifice, after all, is a necessary part of life, something that pushes us to grow.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie as actress Sharon Tate, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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