The Pacific Northwest on display in Kelly Reichardt‘s latest film isn’t restorative, as in her lovely last, “Old Joy,” the lust forests of which temporarily heal an ailing friendship; nor is the setting here milked for moody, romantic potential as in the recently released “Twilight.” In “Wendy and Lucy,” the filmmaker instead harnesses the region’s notoriously forbidding grey skies to conjure an atmospheric bleakness suited to the impoverished underbelly of Portland.
Waylaid by car problems on the suburban fringes of the city, Wendy and her dog, Lucy — previously seen in a small role in “Old Joy” and here elevated to star status alongside a gloriously subdued Michelle Williams — face an increasingly dire financial situation. Reichardt, working from a script co-written by John Raymond and based on his short story, attentively chronicles a life held together by little more than duct tape as it slowly comes apart.
As in her debut, “River of Grass,” the director strips the glamour from the American road trip of popular imagination, detailing a journey borne of economic desperation rather than Kerouacian impulse towards free-spirited adventure and self-discovery: Wendy brushes her teeth and washes up in gas stations, sleeps in her car, and meticulously tracks dwindling funds in a notebook as she makes her way northwest in hopes of landing a job at one of Alaska’s fish canneries. But this isn’t “Into the Wild” recast with a female lead, and the state’s mythical allure (Sarah Palin notwithstanding) matters less as a wilderness mecca for Wendy’s purposes than as a possible source of steady employment; vagabondism isn’t a lifestyle choice, a countercultural dropping out, but a result of gradual squeezing out.
As with Bresson’s beleaguered Mouchette, Wendy endures a life-unraveling series of hardships in an alarmingly condensed period of time. On the same day she’s confronted with the sound of sputtering silence as she attempts to start her car, she’s arrested for shoplifting doggie treats before returning to the scene of the crime to find Lucy missing. Stranded and alone in a strange town (she bears Indiana license plates) and with no recourse (a quick call to her only apparent family, a sister and brother-in-law, makes this abundantly evident), Wendy’s attempts to cope with a lost “Lu” and stalled car are hemmed in by a dearth of local contact information and a budget incapable of accommodating unforeseen expenses.
From minor details, such as a shot of a stranger reading late local god Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion,” to larger inclusions, such as the young girl’s frequent interactions with the area’s highly visible homeless population — due in part to Portland’s former lack of sit-lie laws and abundance of shelters and services — Reichardt grounds her story in a specific milieu. Whether bottle-collectors awaiting turns at a redemption site or youthful hobos hanging near the tracks, Wendy interacts mostly with off-the map members of society, a constant reminder of the thin line separating her from true poverty. Her awareness of the possibility of veering into similar straits manifests itself in the latter encounter as she approaches the group to collect a straying Lucy; Williams broadcasts trepidation barely masked by forced nonchalance. Later, a frightening nighttime confrontation with a mentally unstable vagrant — set to the crescendo of a passing train’s blaring warning horns — likewise indicates a dangerous threshold she might cross should her delicate situation continue to further disintegrate.
Although organically sprung from and particular to its regional Oregon setting, “Wendy and Lucy” is presciently applicable in its implications to many in this season of now-official recession. Reichardt’s film is animated by a diffuse political energy — exemplified by a genial security guard’s observation that it’s impossible to find a job without an address or phone number, or a job without a job — which locates Wendy’s dilemma, no matter the specifics of her situation or setting, in a broader American narrative. The decidedly minimalist visual and aural design, somehow both stark and sumptuous, seems to actively invite viewer projection with its open, quiet spaces structured to induce reflection. A soundtrack punctuated sharply by the wail of incessantly passing trains or Wendy’s hums and cries of “Lucy!” adds to the film a metronomic quality. At times so understated its impact seems almost imperceptible, “Wendy and Lucy” possesses a striking capacity for emotional expansiveness that patiently unveils depths of profundity.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]