Wendy and Lucy

Movie Information

The Story: A woman heading to a new life in Alaska with her dog runs into trouble along the way. The Lowdown: A rather dreary, depressing look at a woman’s search for a new life. Well made for what it is, but whether or not that makes it artistically or dramatically viable is another matter.
Genre: Drama
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Will Oldham, Wally Dalton, John Robinson
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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9 thoughts on “Wendy and Lucy

  1. Richard Haines

    Are you joking? it was an extremely powerful movie and Michelle Williams was perfectly cast. I loved every moment of it.

  2. Richard Haines

    Well that’s sad since the majority of critics loved this film and so does the public. I hardly think your review counts.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I hardly think it can be said that the public loved this film since it made significantly less than a million dollars during its theatrical release. My review counts as my take on the film, which is all anyone’s review counts for.

  4. Ezekiel

    Saw this last night at the Tryon Film Society and must say I lean toward Ken’s appraisal.

  5. Richard Haines

    Well I only responded because I was so outraged that you’d find fault with this beautifully filmed and acted movie. It was a low-budget indie film. I don’t think you can go by how much a movie makes in $$ as any indication of a movie’s quality.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Well I only responded because I was so outraged that you’d find fault with this beautifully filmed and acted movie.

    I’ve no problem with that. You loved the film, I didn’t. That’s what it comes down to.

    I don’t think you can go by how much a movie makes in $$ as any indication of a movie’s quality.

    I’ve never suggested it does. Last I knew Tetro, which may, in my view, be the best movie of 2009, had yet to make a million dollars. However, you’re the one who in part defended this movie by saying that the public “loved” it, which is grounded in a similar idea as how much money it made.

  7. bbensetler

    I agree, a year from now hardly anyone will remember Monsters vs. Aliens, a poor animated rip-off of Men in Black. Not sure I agree with your portrayal of the Reese Witherspoon character, and where was the dog?

  8. Dave Kelly

    Although I admired the acting (although the store clerk was a little over the top) and the story was compelling, in the end this film wasn’t convincing. Michelle Williams is too beautiful. It is a fact in this world that beautiful people have a much easier ride than ugly ones. I cannot accept the notion that a gorgeous woman would be in Wendy’s situation. I would have bought into the story more if the role of Wendy had been played by a less attractive actress.

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