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.