Friday, May 15, 2009

Wendy and Lucy (2008)

I finally caught up with Wendy And Lucy following the surprise attention it got from critics last year, which saw it receive a deluge of praise, find its way onto several “best of” lists, and spark at least one debate on the state of modern film. At first glance, I can say without hesitation that Wendy and Lucy is a much better effort than director Kelly Reichardt’s previous film, Old Joy, which was so slight that it eventually became downright dull, but I have the feeling that I’ll never need to see a single frame of it ever again. In a way this is to the movie’s credit: Wendy and Lucy’s subject matter is so seemingly small, and the style so mathematically precise, that after you’ve seen the movie once you feel as though you’ve truly experienced it, and chances are you won’t need to revisit it any time soon.

The film stars Michelle Williams as Wendy, a young drifter who’s driving around the country with her dog, Lucy, in tow. When her car breaks down somewhere in Oregon, a chain reaction of bad luck and bad decisions ends with Lucy going missing, and with no help and little money, Wendy is stuck trying to find her companion in a city where she knows no one.

You wouldn’t think that a movie about a girl looking for her lost dog could be all that compelling, but Reichardt’s meditative style and a great, subtle performance from Williams really draw you in. It’s become a huge cliche at this point, but the real achievement here (yes, as in The Bicycle Thief) is that this small, seemingly insignificant struggle eventually takes on tragic implications, and by the last few minutes of the movie we truly are hoping against hope that everything will work out for this character. This may just be because of the hopelessly sentimental girl-and-her-pet-dog dynamic that’s at work here, and there’s no doubt that stories about animals are one of the easiest ways to tug at the heartstrings of an audience, but it's a real achievement that this film is able to take this easy, readily available device and makes it stand for so much more at the same time that it strips it down to its barest parts. Beyond all else, we are involved.

And this is strange, because we know almost nothing about Williams’ character or where she’s coming from, and other than her vague aspirations of going to Alaska to work in a cannery, we don’t know where she’s going. What is clear is that she’s a person who’s hell-bent on living in the present, and it seems that as a director Reichardt is equally set on building this conceit with her camera. Her style of placid, stationary landscapes and slow, fluid tracking shots can definitely get a little tedious, but it does succeed in grounding the viewer in the here and now of her story, and helps us to identify with Wendy even though she seems so anonymous. As the story builds and the stakes get higher, it becomes obvious that this movie is not just about a girl searching for a lost pet, it’s about someone searching for a way to survive in a world that seems cold and indifferent their existence.

For all its economy of style and content (this movie clocks in at barely over 80 minutes), Wendy and Lucy is chock full of subtext, but unfortunately not all of hits home the way it probably should. I could have done without the supermarket clerk who catches Wendy shoplifting having to prominently sport a cross necklace and spout off conservative ideology--a none too subtle attempt to create a counterpoint to Wendy’s free-spirited lifestyle--or a short scene featuring independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden (who pulls off creepy very well) as a menacing homeless man, which seems oddly out of place. Still, there are also some real standouts here, especially Wally Dalton, who is a real delight to watch as a Walgreen’s security guard who is seemingly the only kind soul that Wendy encounters in the whole film.

Ultimately, it seems that Wendy and Lucy is a movie that probably got praised more for being a novelty in American cinema than it did for accomplishing anything groundbreaking. It doesn’t necessarily stake out any new territory, cinematically speaking, and the struggle at the heart of its story is nothing new either. Foreign filmmakers have been hitting both fronts for at least fifty years. It's too early to tell whether or not it marks the beginning of a sea change in American independent cinema, but all hype and theorizing aside, this is a well-made and superbly acted little film that builds to a truly elegant ending. At the very least, you have to respect Reichardt and Williams for being willing to take on such a slight, muted story. Sometimes it takes a lot more courage to a make a movie that is stripped down and meditative than it does to make something sweeping, and even if Reichardt's films aren't necessarily as transcendent as some have claimed, I'm still glad she's making them.

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