Wendy and Lucy Dir. Kelly Reichardt

[Oscilloscope Pictures; 2008]

In these troubled economic times, Wendy and Lucy, the story of a young woman of extremely meager means en route to Alaska to find work, makes for a powerful parable. Wendy (Michelle Williams) begins the movie with an optimistic $525; an extended stay in an Oregon hamlet whittles her resources down to $270. In the absence of any safety net, Wendy's plight feels even starker and more timely. With no phone, no address, and a car constantly on the verge of breaking down, Wendy’s only ally is Lucy, her loyal mutt.

The premise invites comparisons with Sean Penn’s recent film, Into the Wild, another tale of an intrepid twenty-something hoping to find his bearings at America's last frontier. But director Kelly Reichardt’s subtler approach neatly eludes the parallel. While Into the Wild explained its hero’s eccentricities away with pat psychology, Reichardt, and Williams, in a beautifully controlled turn, offer very little in the way of Wendy’s history. Her license plate tells us that she hails from Indiana, but we never learn what she was doing there or why she left. She makes one short phone call to her sister, who seems to regard the communication as an inconvenience, but we don’t find out who her parents are, or were, or how they feel about their daughter’s trek north.

Wendy’s tether to the world is Lucy, a bobbing foil for her stoicism. Their communion animates Wendy even as it complicates her quest; she can hardly afford to feed an extra mouth. And it’s Lucy who detains her owner in Oregon when, after Wendy is carted to the police station for shoplifting dog food, she returns to the post she had tied Lucy to only to find her vanished. A lost pet might seem like the cinematic equivalent of chopping onions, but Wendy’s single-mindedness rubs off on us. She refuses to let the thought that she might not find Lucy creep through her mind, and we hope, fervently, that she’s right. (Pooch lovers, be warned: even cat people won’t be able to keep their eyes dry during the wrenching scene in which Wendy scans the cages at the local pound, hoping to find Lucy among the sad-eyed pups there.)

This scenario might have become relentlessly maudlin under a lesser director’s command, but Reichardt eschews any melodrama. She employs no musical score, apart from the heroine’s sporadic humming. Wendy meets her trials with clear-eyed pragmatism, even as they grow steadily steeper. But the miracle of the film is that she needs no theatrics to absorb us. The marvelous Williams makes her character’s mundane tasks every bit as riveting as the revelatory scene, late in the film, when Wendy’s defenses finally crumble.

As sympathetic as she is, Wendy is no one-note naïf. She’s often prickly, struggling to warm to people like the security officer (Wally Dalton) she meets when he kicks her out of the parking lot where she has been sleeping in her car. But, later in the film, he tosses her a lifeline in her search for Lucy by lending her his cell phone. “No one uses the pay phone anymore,” he gently nudges. His selflessness inspires Wendy, who realizes that their circumstances aren’t so different.

Reichardt recently said she had wanted to explore the question of whether someone without “the benefit of an education, a nest egg or a family net” could truly improve her station. If she appears pessimistic about the prospect -- the security guard, in his seventies, is saddled with a decidedly uninspiring job -- it’s not so simple. Throughout her solitary travails, it’s Wendy’s personal connections, whether with people or canines, that lend her enough strength to fight for something better for herself. As the economy flails, Reichardt’s lesson is one we’d all do well to heed.

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