Wendy and Lucy
Sleepover in the woods? I’m so there!

Theatrical Release Date: 01/23/2009
Director: Kelly Reichhardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Wally Dalton, Will Patton, Will Oldham, John Robinson, Larry Fessenden

In writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy”, the titular pair refers to Michelle Williams and her dog, respectively. Wendy is on a cross continental journey from the Midwest to Alaska, in hopes of starting a new life. She has barely enough money (if that) to get to the Last Frontier and the last thing she needs is for her car to break down in Portland, Oregon.

Of course, that’s what happens and the film is a methodical examination of Wendy’s mental and emotional well-being as she struggles to figure out a way to get her car fixed, all while finding (hopefully) safe places to sleep on the street or in the countryside and looking for her dog who disappears one morning from outside a grocery store.

Michelle Williams’ career is rather unremarkable from an acting standpoint until of late, with quality supporting roles in films like “Brokeback Mountain“, “Imaginary Heroes” and “The United States of Leland”. Here, she finally lands front and center, forced to carry the entire film on her shoulders and the result is the best performance of her career.

She plays Wendy with a subdued, broken and yet somehow fierce conviction that makes rooting for and understanding her character remarkably easy. This is a woman who only needs one thing to go right in order to turn her life around. The heartbreaking reality is that pulling yourself out of the psychological gutter takes more than force of will and as the film unfolds, Reichardt beautifully dangles hope in front of Wendy and the audience and because this isn’t a studio film bowing to test screening audiences, the tangible possibility that not everything will go all right is sublime.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the film is that the finer details of how she came to arrive at such a desperate point in her life are never made clear. The audience must fill in those questions with answers that are of our own derivation and I tend to prefer when filmmakers don’t spell everything out and let the character’s actions create their own inferences.

The small supporting cast help to shore up the film’s sensibilities and provide Williams with varying archetypes, off which she can bounce her character’s conflicting optimism/realism. Portland’s rather drab setting and obvious metaphors deriving from the cities multitude of bridges also help to frame the film in a setting that makes understanding Wendy’s state of mind that much easier.

However, while I credit Reichardt and the cast for ably delivering a quiet look into one life on the precipice of a new beginning, that isn’t to say I’m not somewhat disappointed by the overall result or that it might not be my own fault. What one normally expects to find in more personal character studies is an ability to connect with the character and to engage yourself in their trials and tribulations.

Here, I happily went along for the ride and enjoyed the performances but never felt myself becoming invested in Wendy’s plight. As someone who’s driven across the country a number of times, I appreciated the nuances of driving in foreign territory and the freeing, yet sometimes wary, feelings that come along with that. But as the roadblocks to Wendy’s potential turnaround are set up, I didn’t find myself truly empathizing with her. I did appreciate seeing how much she relied on her dog Lucy’s unconditional love

I don’t think this is a fault so much of the filmmakers or cast, as the film’s quality makes me feel that their vision was realized on screen. More so, I will admit it’s probably some mental cog within myself that kept Wendy’s character from latching itself onto my own psyche. However, since I tend to eagerly dote on films like this, I’m still at odds wondering whether a second look at the film might not change my mind somewhat and the film is good enough to warrant that (should I get to it, I’ll post an additional comment).

However, as it stands now, Williams’ performance and Reichardt’s treatment of the story add up to only a 3 out of 5 – if I dealt with half points, I’d tack it on though. I’m usually all for these quasi-aimless independent darlings but for one reason or another, never found myself truly connecting to the film. I appreciate it on many different levels but maybe I’m just too jaded or selfish to become as invested in the film as I expected to. If you’re a fan of independent films, I still recommend checking this out but if you are someone in need of a clear A to B to C plot structure, this character study might leave you wanting.