Wendy & Lucy

Director: Kelly Reichardt
2008

The simplicity of Wendy & Lucy, a modest but powerful portrait of human suffering, is strikingly unadorned while at the same time being deceptively simple; a testament to the adage that less is more. It is naturalistic and contemplative, with little or no meaningless imagery and, while minimalistic, it has an excellent sense of proportion.  It is unvarnished; nothing in it is romanticized or overstated.  It’s an example of everything that is right with independent film in this country.  We know how mega-blockbusters spend millions of dollars to get movies to feel like exhausting carnival rides but, in the end, it is far easier to pull off bombast than delicacy.  You can hide imperfections in an avalanche of stimuli and frenzied rapid movement and this is a considerable part of what makes Wendy and Lucy feels even more perfect and exquisitely realized.  It has not a scene or word out of place and not a scene or word more than it needs.  Every word matters, every shot counts – there is nothing that is non-essential in it.  The film is perfect at its 80 minute running time and we are reminded that long doesn’t necessarily mean important or short trivial.

The cinematography by Sam Levy is beautiful, haunting and lyrical.  It contributes substantially to the excellent sense of place with its observance of small town details that ring true.  It is shot mostly shot outdoors in natural light.  It has fixed camera shots only – thankfully there’s none of the shaky handheld, cinema vérité camera work that generally plagues this sort of independent film.  It has no score.  The only music is the soft, wispy humming of Wendy’s theme. Most of it is set to the constant clatter of trains passing through. These elements, along with Williams pitch perfect performance and Reichardt’s sense of naturalistic stillness and silence, achieve a delicate and disarming directness and nakedness that is rare in any film.

At its core, Wendy & Lucy is driven by its socio-political subtext.  It is, however, the sort of film political filmmakers rarely succeed in making.  Generally speaking, political filmmakers spend too much time pounding their chests to get their points across and pontificating through bullhorns to make a film this sensitive.  There is no leftist sermonizing here.

The film’s setting is not specified allowing it to be almost anywhere.  What is has to say about the place, it says strongly in images of rail yards, buildings and vacant lots that seem to betray a sense of decay and indifference.  The film is populated with realistic characters from the margins of society – train hobos, transients, can recycling vagabonds, an angry homeless guy.

Wendy herself – often shown small in the film’s many long shots and pushed to the edge of the frame – is stuck in a situation where all of her choices are determined by her economic circumstance.  Her fragile situation is marked by an oppressive lack of resources.  She has no safety net and living on such a meager budget calls for extreme prudence and often sacrifice.  Life on the fringes is unforgiving and merciless.  Desperate times and limited means always leave little margin for error.  As a portrait of socioeconomic misery, the film offers an examination of the thin line that divides those with jobs and homes and those without; those who are just a few hundred dollars from homelessness. America is full of people like this. And very often there is loneliness in poverty.

Wendy just needs a break.  A few people do try to give her one when they can but the help is not large enough to affect her circumstances.  Overall though, Wendy encounters so much indifference that it leads one to wonder if this country has become more indifferent that it used to be.  As we contemplate her situation and sympathize with her, it begs the question that, if she lacks our advantages, might she not deserve our protection?

Wendy & Lucy is rich in mood and character.  By being lean on plot and dialog, the film’s observational style leaves long spaces to contemplate Wendy and her situation. Her circumstances prior to the story seem deliberately obscured. They are not necessary for understanding the character or the weight of her situation.  We are shown more about Wendy than we are told about her. When she says about where she is going, “I hear they need people there”, it feels sad in its implications and even more so as the story unfolds.

Wendy’s lack of cynicism leads her to retreats inward which adds to her vulnerability. She is diffident but she is also very self-contained, determined and dignified.  Her dignity lies at not revealing herself easily to anyone, including the audience. We only ever see her be open with Lucy.

The grocery store clerk says, “If a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog.”  Basically, it is an economic statement but it happens to be about the only thing that Wendy is connected to. Lucy is her best friend and probably her only friend. She is the only thing that stands between Wendy and solitude. Lucy isn’t a luxury, she is a lifeline and the one constant and only fixture in Wendy’s world. The only time we see Wendy smile, it has something to do with Lucy. Ultimately, since Lucy symbolizes Wendy’s humanity and the only thing she is connected to, the clerk might as well say that if you can’t afford dog, you shouldn’t be allowed to live.

Wendy is left trudging through an unknown place searching for her only friend.  When looking for Lucy she puts up signs that say “I’m lost!!!” – she has written it about Lucy but it might as well apply to herself.  Wendy appears like a lost soul in a world that no longer has a context for such a person. She says several times, “I’m just passing through.”  With no address, no cell phone, no money to speak of, no family that cares, she seems like someone dimming towards invisibility – passing through a system and falling off of its collective register.

Michelle Williams’ naturalistic and understated performance succeeds in drawing the viewer in perfectly to help bring these circumstances to life.  Her performance asks for no sympathy yet, for the careful viewer, easily succeeds in winning it.  For as little as she may appear to do in the film, her wonderfully nuanced performance is palpable and full of feeling.  Michelle has a stillness about her and is tremendously affecting in close-ups.  She gives an extraordinary, Oscar-worthy performance and, being in virtually every single scene, she carries the film and succeeds in essentially actualizing Reichardt’s vision.

While most of Williams’ acting peers have gone, at one point or another, through the motions of dating crisis in tired, formulaic romantic comedies or perhaps run from some form of evil across the screen, screaming in their underwear in another generic horror film, Michelle Williams quietly shows us crisis by sitting on the curb and pressing her head into her hands – and it is more affecting than any of the others could be.  It feels somewhat unusual to see a woman on the screen left alone with her thoughts for any considerable period of time and we become aware of how little we are shown in American movies of young women’s inner lives.

European in its focus on the individual and in its social concern, the film recalls Italian post-war classic cinema like De Sica’s Umberto D (where societal ills are also revealed through a dog/owner relationship) or Bicycle ThievesWendy & Lucy was made just before the country’s economic downturn but it does feels rather timely and its current social relevance only adds to its impact.  While it also functions as a metaphor for life – while moving along, working towards plans, hopes and dreams, the unexpected gets in the way – ultimately, it is a film about how oppressive economic circumstances separate people from their humanity.  In the film’s heartrending denouement, leaving Lucy behind is Wendy’s only option.  It is also a tremendous act of selfless and motherly love.  In the film’s most powerful scene we are shown, with no one around to bear witness and with absolutely no reward in sight, the very weakest among us delivering an act of uncommon strength.

Then, alone, she passes through.

 

(Inspired by the film and several reviews of the film)