Kelly Reichardt, an independent filmmaker living in the Pacific Northwest, specializes in films about the kind of people who never get anywhere near Portlandia, the working-class, the socially isolated, the emotionally unstable, the misfits and semi-homeless.
Wendy and Lucy, which was made back in 2009 for only 300,000 dollars, is perhaps Reichardt’s best known film. Starring Michelle Williams, probably the main reason it actually made a profit, Wendy and Lucy is a very simple story about a young woman on her way to Southeast Alaska to work the salmon season. Wendy, the young woman, who’s somewhere in her 20s, has 550 dollars, a Honda Accord that’s probably older than she is, a few changes of clothes, a backpack, and a golden retriever mix named Lucy. One day, in suburban Portland, her car breaks down. She gets arrested for shoplifting, and loses her dog. That’s about it. She spends the rest of the film trying to pull herself together as best as she an so she can leave town.
But it’s not the plot that makes Wendy and Lucy so effective. It’s Michelle Williams. I can’t exaggerate how much respect I gained for Williams when I found out she worked on Wendy and Lucy for almost no salary, and did manual labor on the set. Her husband, Heath Ledger, had died only the year before. Whatever Lucy goes through in the film, it’s probably not as bad as losing a loved one to a drug overdose that was broadcast over half the world. Yet that’s exactly what makes her performance work so well. Williams, if not exactly a household name or an A-list actor like her late husband, still has very little in common with a poor misfit like Wendy, a young woman living on the edge of social oblivion who doesn’t even get to keep the mutt she’s been traveling with. The fact that Williams was able to transform the grief she was feeling over Heath Ledger into building an inner life for a character neither she nor anybody in Hollywood ever sees, let alone understands, is what acting, and what art in general is all about.
Make no mistake. As much as I liked Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, she was still Jennifer Lawrence, a spunky southern gal who has no trouble looking people in the eye, standing up to gun toting hill billies, or skinning a squirrel. Rhee, in Winter’s Bone, is part of the underclass, but Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t been transformed by class. As Wendy, Michelle Williams may still have a pretty face, but everything else about her, her posture, her body language, the way she speaks, the way she seems to negotiate with the gods for her very existence, embodies the kind of person who knows she can fall through the cracks and never get out. To contrast the two performances, think about the old film Giant. Compare Rock Hudson to James Dean. Jennifer Lawrence is Rock Hudson, always very obviously a movie star, even when she’s pulling her dead meth cooker father’s hands out of a frozen lake. Michelle Williams is like James Dean, she connects with events in her own life that allow her to feel the emotions of the character she’s playing on screen.
Wendy and Lucy is a race against time and a study of physical and emotional vulnerability. After Wendy makes a phone call to her harsh, brother-in-law and even harsher sister, we realize that if she doesn’t make it to Alaska and work the summer, she will indeed become fully, not semi-homeless. Kelly Reichardt understands what it’s like to have a car that barely works, a bicycle with a worn out chain, clothes that you can’t possibly wear to a job interview, no phone, a leaky roof, termites, a laptop that’s 10 years old and on its last legs, a tooth with a bad filling that could turn into a root canal if you bite down on a piece of food the wrong way. Reichardt understands the kind of people for whom any mistake, any malfunction, any breakdown, anything that goes wrong can completely upend your life. Perhaps the saddest part of the film is when Wendy, who knows little, or nothing about cars, tries to negotiate with an auto mechanic for the price of the repair. The mechanic knows anything can be wrong. Wendy is hoping against hope that it’s only the serpentine belt, something that will coast her 125 dollars, but still within the realm of possibility.
“I didn’t ask you to check the oil,” she snaps at the man after he tells her why her car won’t start. “I told you only to check the serpentine belt.”
Reichardt also manages to make us see the world from the point of view of a young woman who’s small, and vulnerable, terrified of the world, and, without her dog, without love. The mechanic who tells her how much her car will cost to fix isn’t a bad guy. He’s just a small tradesman doing his job. But from Wendy’s perspective, how he responds means having a car or not, having shelter, or having to sleep outside on a bench. So every time he interrupts her to answer the phone, laughs at her patently ridiculous hope against hope that it’s only the serpentine belt, or just sits back and puts his hand on the desk, we hate him as much as she does. The crust punks Wendy meets at the beginning of the film are perfectly harmless. We all know that just by looking at them. They’re just crust punks. They just want to smoke pot and raid the rails. Yet, from the camera’s point of view, from Wendy’s, they appear vaguely sinister. Will the crust punk girl steal her dog? Will the crust punk guys try to rape her? We know they won’t, but we’re also allowed to understand how Wendy just might think they will. The mentally disturbed homeless man who interrupts Wendy’s sleep the night after she loses her dog, and her car, is her fellow outcast, a man who’s already fallen through the cracks, permanently, yet no solidarity, no communication is possible between them.
Wendy is genuinely a truly alone, more alone than anybody I’ve ever seen on screen. She has two friends, a vaguely sympathetic middle-aged security guard at Walgreens who lets her use his cell phone, and her dog Lucy. Lucy isn’t just a pet to Wendy. She’s another person, the only thing in the world she seems to love and who seems to love her in return. When she gets lost, we feel Wendy’s grief. There’s a wonderful scene where Wendy takes the bus to the pound in the hopes that maybe she kind find Lucy. The receptionist at the desk is a sympathetic young woman. She probably even likes animals or she wouldn’t be working at a pound. But when she lets Wendy into the back room to look at the strays they’ve picked up, Wendy walks past cage after cage of homeless dogs. They’re all behind bars, which, from the angle Reichardt shoots, make their cells, and they are cells, seem bigger and more menacing then they really are.
Wendy’s role is reversed. For most of the film, she’s been the stray dog. Now she’s now the auto mechanic, the Walgreens security guard, the grocery store clerk who can call the cops on her for shoplifting, or let her go. She has the power of life or death, of giving or denying any of the dog’s freedom. And yet she doesn’t. Wendy, like the security guard or the auto mechanic, is just a powerless individual in a society that isolates most of us from one another and allows us only a few contacts, a family, a boyfriend or a girlfriend, a few co workers. The only dog Wendy is looking for is Lucy. So she passes on. And the rest of the dogs stay behind bars. What will happen to them? Is it a no-kill shelter or not? Who knows? We’re never told and Wendy never asks.
What will happen to Wendy at the end? We don’t know that either. But at least the film makes us ask.