2008 Denver International Film Festival
Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is one of the loneliest films I have ever seen. Plotless and carefree, unburdened by back story or cheap psycho-babble, it is a mere portrait in time of a girl named Wendy (Michelle Williams), and the few days and nights she spends in an unnamed Oregon town. She is on her way to Alaska for reasons unknown, though, like so many others, she seeks work and a “fresh start”, though I’m not even sure she could tell you exactly what that means. What is she running from? Why has she fled Indiana for the naive belief in greener pastures? Thankfully, the director isn’t showing her hand, though Wendy’s meager resources reveal a quiet desperation. Wendy is accompanied by her dog Lucy, who turns up missing after Wendy is arrested for shoplifting in a local store. The theft is curious from the start as Wendy has money, but the subsequent drive to the station and bureaucratic backlog keep her from attending to Lucy for hours, who is left tied up in front of the store.
Once released, Wendy balances a modest search for her dog (a visit to the pound, placing a few signs in store windows) with getting her car fixed, visiting a gas station bathroom, and finding a place to sleep. In terms of story, this is it for nearly an hour-and-a-half, though at no point do we much mind the simplicity. This is a film of small gestures, unexpected kindnesses, and absolutely nothing by way of resolution. Wendy interacts with an elderly security guard outside of a drug store, but unlike Hollywood productions, where the old man would bond so deeply with the girl that he’d take her home and offer a new life, their relationship is limited to guarded conversations and a few roundabout discussions. It is halting and inarticulate, because that is how people are. He has his life, she has hers, and at no point does she reveal the wounds she may or may not be hiding. In fact, he doesn’t even ask her why she’s seemingly on the run. She tells him that she’s off to Alaska to look for work, but he knows enough not to probe any further. As such, this is an encounter on planet earth, not the sentimental delusions of an out-of-touch screenwriter.
There’s sacrifice, a brief scare in the woods (again, unlike Hollywood, it doesn’t lead in the expected direction), and a great deal of walking and waiting, but against all odds, Wendy and Lucy is deeply affecting, much like a short story that sneaks up on you and leaves you bereft. We don’t really know Wendy in the conventional sense, or anybody we run into for that matter, but with every scene, the striking authenticity of the surroundings fills in the gaps. We get little to go on, but somehow we understand. At bottom, it could be little more than a sad portrait of rootlessness, or disaffected youth in search of an identity that will never come, but what struck me most often was the realization that true escape — “starting over”, if you will — is no longer possible. As the security guard says, “You need a job to get a job, and an address to get an address….It’s all fixed.” In other words, the thought that one can pick up stakes, create a new identity, and work odd jobs in some new town is a long-dead romantic ideal as archaic as riding the rails. We’re all too entangled to go anywhere.
Above all, this is an emotional experience that transcends ideology, race, gender, or background. There’s no agenda, sense of outrage, or driving need to justify itself, simply a gloomy parade of disconnection. And yet, there’s no mad push to “bring us all together,” or offer of silly solutions to the whole rotten deal, merely the obvious declaration that so many of us remain untethered to more traditional forms of meaning. This is neither good nor bad, simply the plight we all share, or are but a moment away from discovering despite our best efforts. I’d like to think Wendy and Lucy is what the American road movie has always sought to be, but was too afraid to fully explore; that there may in fact be a Rubicon to cross, but we’re just as apt to remain exactly the same after we get there.