In Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2005) a character played by the singer-songwriter Will Oldham sits in front of a campfire in the wilds of Oregon and expounds on his ideas about the shape of the universe. Perhaps for the sake of continuity, her follow-up, Wendy and Lucy, also features Oldham speaking in front of a campfire somewhere in Cascadia, but in lieu of some humble night-school string theory, his character—the rowdiest member of a hippie cabal making merry in the woods—tells a rambling, increasingly unsettling story about his misadventures as a forklift operator. The story quiets the rest of the circle, providing a cue for the spooked newcomer in their midst to take her leave, with her dog in tow.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) is very much the departing kind: as the film opens, she’s en route to Alaska to work in a cannery (“they need people there,” insists one of the campfire revelers), and her notebook contains the names of the various small towns she’s passed through along the way (as well as the precise amounts of money spent in each location). Reviewers have generally referred to Wendy as a “drifter,” and while the word has some unsavory connotations, it’s apt enough—she lives out of her car and sleeps wherever she parks. And so does her aforementioned dog, Lucy (played by Reichardt’s own dog Lucy, who was also in Old Joy). The first thing Wendy does after tumbling out of the backseat is to open the trunk and retrieve a plastic dish and a big bag of kibble.
As shot by Reichardt in a patient, fixed take, this makeshift breakfast has the distinct ring of a ritual. We get the sense that Wendy and Lucy have seen plenty of mornings like this one, grey and unwelcoming, attended by the giggly gawking of passing teenagers and the by-the-book hectoring of local cops. Such are the indignities of a life lived off the grid, and the first thing you realize about Wendy and Lucy—besides the fact that it’s beautifully made from the very first shot, which quietly tracks the protagonists through a row of trees—is that Reichardt, working as she did in Old Joy from a short story by Jonathan Raymond, is unwilling (as she was in Old Joy) to either romanticize or condescend to her characters’ self-willed marginality. Click here to read the rest of Adam Nayman’s review of Wendy and Lucy.