Sunday, December 21, 2008

Review: "Wendy and Lucy"

There is a moment in Kelly Reichardt's lovely, minuscule drama Wendy and Lucy, where Michelle Williams' Wendy, a down on her luck drifter on her way to find work in Alaska, is told by a mechanic (Will Patton) that her car is completely dead, and that it needs a replacement motor. Wendy, trying to live off a meager $500 on her cross country trip, has been suddenly presented with an insurmountable hurdle. But the magic of this scene is in Williams face. She walks in thinking that the only thing wrong with her car is a worn out belt; but when the mechanic delivers the bad news, something extraordinary transpires. In a remarkably subtle and magnetic performance, Williams allows this final blow in a day full of bad news and setbacks, to melt her spirit in one devastating moment. You can see the fear in her eyes as her mind scrambles to come up with a solution to a problem without an answer. It is a raw, deer in the headlights reaction that sums up what is best in this quietly devastating little gem.

Wendy and Lucy is, above all, about the regular people who fall through society's cracks. Wendy does not look like a stereotypical homeless person, she is neither a drug addict or a criminal and she does not come from a poor family. Her sister and her husband live a comfortable life back home in Indiana. She is just another person who has fallen on hard times, traveling across the country with her beloved dog, Lucy, for the promise of work in great frozen north.

Things begin to go awry for her, though, when she takes a rest stop in a small Oregon town, and the old maxim "when it rains it pours" comes painfully true. Arrested for shoplifting a couple of cans of dog food for Lucy, Wendy finds herself detained by a small town legal system bent on making an example against petty theft, and returns to the grocery store to find Lucy missing. Stuck in a strange town with no car and very little money, Wendy begins a desperate search to find Lucy, where her only solace is in the kindness of strangers whose help may seem small and insignificant, but offers a glimmer of hope in a world that has left her behind.

In a time of deep economic crises, Wendy and Lucy is urgently contemporary in its themes and strikingly real in its execution. Reichardt's organic direction offers a look into a rarely seen yet readily identifiable and increasingly common underbelly of American life. It is a simple film - there are no big revelations, no contrived plot twists or unnecessary accouterments, it just...is - existing squarely in the realm of reality. Wendy could be anybody really, in any small town anywhere across the country, and the choices she makes could very easily be choices any of us could be faced with in a time of economic uncertainty.

By shouldering the entire weight of the film's dramatic power, Williams turns in an extraordinary performance. It is a heartbreaking, unassuming depiction of an woman at the end of her rope, just trying to get by, stuck in a rut she can't seem to fight her way out of, no matter how hard she tries. Even the background grocery store muzak plays the same generic tune she often hums (a barely noticeable detail Reichardt wisely underplays).

Unlike the current Seven Pounds, Wendy and Lucy refuses to sensationalize Wendy's plight or give it any unnecessary emotional pushes. Reichardt never pushes a message engages in emotional manipulations. The film and its story speak for itself, through a sparse, naturalistic screenplay by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond. It is a tiny, bare bones production, held together by Williams' astonishing performance, who provides a much needed emotional core. Wendy is a mirror held up to a struggling society that can only be judged by how it treats the least among its citizens. And while government agencies and charities care for those more obviously poverty stricken, there are tens of thousands more for whom every day is a struggle, constantly making hard decisions and sacrifices just to put food on the table. For them, Wendy and Lucy is a quiet testament to their unheard despair, and a tribute to the small gestures of human kindness that can make all the difference. It is a tragic tone poem for a modern day America, struggling to find a sense of hope in an increasingly hopeless world.

GRADE - ½ (out of four)

WENDY AND LUCY; Directed by Kelly Reichardt; Stars Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton, Will Patton, John Robinson; Rated R for language

3 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

I generally like this kind of film, where have-nots fall through "society's cracks" and your review really has me excited. This is the first full-length review of this film that I have read so far (outside of Nick's) and although I have read some good things, I wanted to wait for more definitive word, which you have given me. Your detailed writing evinced real passion, although I am assuming that this will barely miss your Ten best list, considering the competition.

Matthew Lucas said...

Well my top ten is ever evolving, so never say never! This is definitely one that continues to grow on me as I mull it over, and it's likely I'll sit down and watch it again before I make my list to get a better handle on it.

But yes I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than for Williams' phenomenal performance.

nick plowman said...

Indeed - great review, just like what you said about Gran Torino, you certainly highlighted a lot about what I loved about this film, and that is a lot.