Director Kelly Reichardt's much-anticipated follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2006 fest circuit hit, Old Joy, continues to show Reichardt's remarkable gift for classically simple, deeply engaging storytelling. Wendy and Lucy is the story of Wendy (Michelle Williams), a down-on-her-luck girl who's hoping to turn things around for herself with a summer job at a fishing cannery in Alaska.
Wendy's making the trek from Indiana to Alaska in her beat-up Honda, accompanied only by her dog, Lucy, and about $600 to make the entire trip. When her car breaks down in a small Oregon town, Wendy is forced to make a series of increasingly difficult choices, and to rely upon the kindness (or not) of strangers to resolve her plight.
Wendy loses Lucy in this small, insular town at a time when she most needs the comfort of her canine companion to pull her through. Her agony in losing her only friend in this time of personal crisis is palpable; when Wendy endlessly walks the streets calling for Lucy, her increasing desperation rings through in the tiny wavering of her voice on the edge of emotional breakdown. The kindness of an aged security guard becomes the sole tether that keeps Wendy from losing it completely; Wendy's relationship with the guard shows how the kindness of a single stranger to a person in need can make the difference between holding it together or falling apart.
Where Old Joy relied on the subtle portrayal of a friendship and the emotional history of the two main characters, in Wendy and Lucy her focus is on this one girl who's in a bad situation; regardless of whether her own bad choices have put her there, we can't help but feel for Wendy and hope that she'll be alright. Because the film focuses entirely on Wendy and her relationship with her dog, Williams has to carry the film entirely, and she does so remarkably.
Reichardt's script is small and emotionally intimate. Where she could have chosen to beat her audience about the head and shoulders with endless exposition explaining how Wendy came to be at this point her life, she astutely chooses instead to focus on these brief moments in Wendy's life without judging, or expecting us to judge, the whys and wherefores of how she got there. Reichardt frames the shots perfectly, drawing us into Wendy's story visually rather than with lots of talky, stage-play dialog.
There are a couple of shots in the film that particularly speak to Reichardt's strengths as a filmmaker. In one scene, Wendy walks down the line of cages at the animal shelter, desperately hoping Lucy will be there. Reichardt pans the scene in one long, slow-moving shot, revealing the cages one by one as Wendy is seeing them, and pulling us into the weight of Wendy's desperate hope that she'll be reunited with her friend.
In one of the film's best scenes, Wendy, sleeping in the woods, alone and vulnerable for the first time without her friend and protector, is confronted by a half-crazed homeless guy who stumbles upon her as she's sleeping. She wakes, hearing the man searching through her belongings; he talks to her as she lies there, trembling in fear, only one tiny squeak of terror escaping her. Reichardt shoots this scene in tight close-ups, her lens focused mostly on Williams, who conveys all the emotional tension of this moment through the most minute of facial expressions.
Later, locked in the public restroom of a gas station, Wendy breaks down, ragged sobs escaping her as she struggles to pull herself together. The release of wrenching emotional tension in this scene fills the audience as well; Williams' fear and the weight of her desperation feel very real.
That Williams carries the entire film through moments like this is a testament to her under-appreciated abilities as an actress. She's grown tremendously over the past few years, and with two films at Cannes this year (she's also got a major role in Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, NY), she may be finally moving into a new realm in her career.
Fans of Old Joy will find much to like in Wendy and Lucy; after seeing these two films from Reichardt, I can't wait to see what she does next. Reichardt is a rarity, even among independent filmmakers; she excels at capturing these small, very human moments in the overall stories of her character's lives, bringing them to life with a restraint and beauty that many an A-list director could learn from.