Kelly Reichardt’s highly praised Wendy and Lucy tells the story of a woman, Wendy (Michelle Williams), traveling with her dog, Lucy, from Indiana to a potential new life in Alaska. Unfortunately, Wendy’s car breaks down in Oregon; her money is running out; she gets arrested for shoplifting dog food; Lucy disappears—and then the movie gets really depressing. That sounds glib, but when all is said and done, that’s basically what Wendy and Lucy comes down to: 80 solid minutes of hard luck. And it’s probably the best possible film that could be made from this material. This raises the question of whether or not this accomplishment is likely to hold all that much appeal. In my case, at least, the appeal is elusive at best.
I understand the critical appeal of the film—at least sort of. The slowly paced proceedings are the kind of “important” film that comes out of the indie film world at least once a year. Just about everyone goes gaga over it, and I sit through it wondering if anyone actually likes it or is just cowed by its obvious importance—or its sense of importance. Somehow—probably due to a surplus of more audience-friendly “art” films to fill theaters—Wendy and Lucy didn’t get the attention such movies usually fall heir to during awards season. Regardless, I find myself questioning even the supposed point of the movie.
To judge by the positive reviews, Wendy and Lucy is supposed to be a kind of look into the life of what may come to be more and more the norm in American society given the state of the economy. On the surface, I can buy that. I also like that the film presents a fairly astute observation of the way in which those who are homeless, or are on the fast track to it, are marginalized and even demonized. For example, there’s a pointed—and certainly intentional—implied comment about hypocrisy when the “upright” high-school kid—wearing a very large and prominent cross around his neck—turns Wendy in for shoplifting, also insisting she be prosecuted. OK, but this is also where the trouble starts. The people Wendy encounters are sketched in, but she isn’t.
We know very little about Wendy at the beginning of the film and not a great deal more by the end. Apart from the fact that she has a dog she dotes on (shades of Umberto D), is headed for Alaska in a far from roadworthy vehicle, and has a brother-in-law who seems sympathetic and a sister who apparently isn’t, we learn very little about her. I suspect this is deliberate on director/co-writer Kelly Reichardt’s part, and that it’s supposed to make Wendy into an “everyman” figure. But ultimately she’s a little too much a cipher to seem much of anybody. There’s too much unanswered. Why is her sister unsympathetic? Why does Wendy have no network of friends on whom she might call? Has she burned all her bridges? Has life burned them for her? I suppose we’re meant to feel for her because she loves her dog, or possibly simply because she’s a fellow human being. In humanitarian terms, that’s perfectly reasonable. As drama, it’s simply not that compelling.
Bear in mind, this is a movie a good many critics have found absolutely wonderful. I just can’t count myself among them. For me, it’s destined to be the indie-film equivalent to the mainstream release I saw this week, Monsters vs. Aliens, which is to say, a year from now it won’t be a blip on my conscious mind. If someone mentions it to me, it’ll register as “oh, yeah, that depressing movie about the woman and her dog.” Rated R for language.