Judge Brendan Babish thinks a goldfish would be a better traveling companion. They can't get very far.
On the long road, friendship is everything.
In an era when a film like Yes Man requires a budget of $70 million, director Kelly Reichardt managed to make Wendy and Lucy, one of the more acclaimed films of 2008. If nothing else, this film is worth watching just to see how little money it takes to make a great film.
Wendy (Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain) is a young woman driving through Oregon, on her way to Alaska—where the jobs are, so they say. She doesn't have much: a couple hundred bucks, a couple changes of clothes, a beat-up car, and a dog. Lucy. While Wendy's dire situation could cause despondency; Lucy's presence helps stave off depression. However, after Wendy's car breaks down and Lucy disappears, this young woman finds herself in a small, unfamiliar town, staring into an abyss.
This is a modest plot that belies an affecting story and profound statement on American society. Though the film is far from a diatribe, this is a political film, one depicting a young woman struggling in a society without a safety net. While the story of Wendy and her dog is moving, it is the portrait of America that provides the depth few films of any budget can offer.
The movie's outline is so simple it could have been drafted on the back of a cocktail napkin. That is not to belittle it; in fact, the film's sparse plotting is befitting a depiction of someone on the margins of society, people who are often bereft of options and prone to stagnation. Still, Wendy's extreme situation gives meaning—and sometimes even suspense—to each of her actions, whether she is shopping, bathing in a gas station restroom, or talking to a lonely security guard.
Of course, that doesn't sound like the making of a great drama, but Williams' performance makes everything she does riveting. Without much dialogue, Williams—who is perhaps too attractive for the role, despite sleeping in her car and eschewing showers in preparation—conveys all the stress, shame, and resilience of someone on the brink. Of course, her predicament differs from a male's in a similar situation, and the film shows how even more precarious and dangerous life can be (especially without a dog) for a woman without a home.
Thankfully, the movie is never didactic and doesn't attempt to advance any specific political intentions. Wendy and Lucy does not attempt to pin the blame for homelessness on any single entity. Instead, Reichardt merely shows that the line between getting by and utter destitution is perhaps thinner than we realize, and that intelligent, caring people too easily and too often fall on the wrong side of that line. In doing so, the film only attempts to draw awareness, and perhaps sympathy, for this fact.
There is a scene early in the film where two strangers have the opportunity to help or severely harm Lucy. In their case, helping her—the far greater good—would nonetheless be violating the rules of their workplace. These people, who are good people—and there are many like them—are the ones who would get the most out of watching Wendy and Lucy.
This is not a message, or a movie, that one might want to hear on a date on a Saturday night, but it is something you don't see often (ever?) in the multiplex, and it is essential viewing. This film may have been made on a minuscule budget, but it shows how powerful the medium can be.
The movie was shot in super-16, which produces a muddy picture, especially in the night scenes. That said, the rough look of the picture does seem appropriate for the movie's theme. The sound is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, but there is so little action or music that there is nothing on the soundtrack to judge. The only bonuses on the DVD are a collection of experimental short films from the film faculty at Bard College, curated by Reichardt. These films have no connection to Wendy and Lucy, but including them on a DVD is a novel way to get additional exposure for short films.
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