Thursday, March 5, 2009
Right now there is no one chronicling the unsung existences of Americans on the far margins of society in film as well as writer/director Kelly Reichardt. In her overlooked 2006 feature Old Joy, the rift between those on the fringe and the more well-adjusted members of society were represented by Will Oldham’s Kurt and Daniel London’s Mark, respectively. Mark had entered a conventional life with a wife and a job, while Kurt was still rambling around in his van, trying to eke out an existence. Old Joy followed the two college friends as they attempted to reconnect with one another – and ultimately failed – on a weekend camping trip.
With her latest, Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt only examines the losing side of the equation. Almost unrecognizable with brown-cropped hair and a hooded sweatshirt, Michelle Williams, who received an Oscar nomination for her work in Brokeback Mountain, portrays Wendy, a self-contained young woman trying to find her way to Alaska to secure some work. During the journey, she doles out her dwindling money sparingly and records any expenditures in a notebook decorated by her doodles.
That is until a stop in a small Oregon town at the beginning of Wendy and Lucy sets the film’s modest plot in motion. Wendy’s beater car breaks down, and through unfortunate circumstances, the young woman becomes separated from her traveling companion and best friend, a Labrador mix named Lucy. The rest of Wendy and Lucy follows Wendy’s attempts to find her beloved pet.
The obstacles Wendy faces are because she is without the basic tools needed to thrive in contemporary American society: a job, an address, a cell phone. In stark contrast to a moralistic grocery store employee and a callous service station employee that Wendy encounters is a helpful drugstore security guard, who saves the film from having an overtly negative take on contemporary humanity.
It is Wendy’s exchange with the security guard while talking about the town’s faltering economy that seems to put forth the film’s simple premise about how hard it is for those on the fringes to navigate the overgrown thicket of bureaucracy in the world. Wendy tells the security guard that you can’t get a job these days without an address or a phone. “You can’t get an address without an address,” the guard adds. “You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.”
There was early talk about Williams receiving an Oscar nod for the role but surely not enough Academy Award voters saw this small, low budget indie film (although she did receive a nomination, more fittingly, from the Independent Spirit Awards). That’s their loss – Williams’ performance is quietly heartbreaking, and as lived in and natural as the worn clothes her character wears.
As critics have observed, Wendy and Lucy deserves wider recognition than the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters it surpasses in vision and accomplishment; nevertheless, the film will most likely end up like Williams’ character – wandering around barely noticed below mainstream America’s radar.
WENDY AND LUCY (3½) Directed by Kelly Reichardt • Starring Michelle Williams and Will Oldham Rated R. At the Osio Cinemas.