I watched the acclaimed indie Wendy and Lucy last month with Firecracker but forgot to write about it, and that’s a shame, because it’s one of last year’s best movies. I’d go as far as to call it, along with Frozen River (full review), as the closest we’ve come to The Bicycle Thief in recent years. Big talk, yes. But we’ve since swallowed neorealism and it takes a quiet, introspective film like this to bring it back to us. If Sean Penn watched this before Into the Wild it might have gone from good to great.
Wendy and Lucy is a deceptively simple film, and that will lead to accusations of pretentiousness. They are unwarranted. We meet Wendy, inseparable from her dog Lucy, a perky and lovable sandy mix. We’re slowly introduced to their situation through visuals, as Wendy tries to sell some aluminum cans at a recycling center; she’s homeless, living out of her car, tightly budgeting things so she can make it to Alaska and work in a cannery. She drives a beat-up Toyota and lives out of it with Lucy, and she’s made it as far as the Northwest. We don’t dwell on or pity her, for she meets some who are less well-off, as she walks Lucy by the railroad tracks. They live in the woods, and ride the trains to get around, modern day hobos.
People living like Wendy are just one crisis away from tragedy, and we get to see it happen. Her car breaks down; she makes a risky decision, and suffers the consequences. The drama mostly plays out on Wendy’s face; Michelle Williams isn’t Maria Falconetti in The Passions of Joan of Arc but she does an excellent job of expressing the history and emotional depth Wendy has with Lucy, and with her family. She’s been in Brokeback Mountain, The Station Agent and Synecdoche, NY as well. Director Kelly Reichardt does a fine job of telling us a story through conversation and images. For example, Wendy’s backstory is explained only through a phone call to her sister, and we know volumes from how she answers: “What do you want now?”
It’s a sad and touching story that gives a face to the marginal. to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald- you can start with a person, and end up with a type; if you start with a type, you end up with nothing. Wendy and Lucy gives us a person who we can empathize with by the end of the film, as she agonizes through decisions and doesn’t always make the right one. Our Puritan heritage may make us want her to suffer for her decisions, but hopefully we also have some Christian charity that can forgive her, and see the long road that led to them, where bootstraps could find no purchase.