(Winner of the Palm Dog at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival)
Directed by Kelly Reichardt and written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond based on Raymond‘s short story Train Choir, Wendy and Lucy tells the story of a young woman going on a journey to Alaska with her dog in order to find work and a new life. Along the way, she faces challenges along with the possibility of losing her dog as the film plays to Reichardt’s minimalist filmmaking style. Starring Michelle Williams, Will Patton, John Robinson, Walter Dalton, and Will Oldham. Wendy and Lucy is a heartbreaking yet mesmerizing film from Kelly Reichardt.
Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) is driving from Indiana to Alaska to find work that is available. With her dog Lucy, Wendy makes a stop in Oregon as she talks to a group of people including a man named Icky (Will Oldham) who tells her about the work in Alaska. The next day, Wendy’s car wouldn’t start as a security guard (Walter Dalton) helps her out where Wendy goes to a local market to get some things for herself and Lucy. Going outside to check on Lucy, who is tied by a bike post, she’s stopped by a clerk (John Robinson) who accuses her of stealing as she’s sent to jail.
Following her release, Wendy goes on the search for a dog while the local mechanic (Will Patton) takes her car to figure out what is wrong. With the help of the security guard, Wendy tries to find Lucy as she asks the local pound for her whereabouts as she offers the security guard’s number for contact. Wendy walks around town to try and find her dog where she would encounter difficulties and heartbreak.
A film about a young woman losing her dog and trying to find the dog might not seem like a compelling type of film in terms of what is expected with conventional, mainstream cinema. An idea like that would be perfect for the Italian neo-realism of the late 1940s but that is an entirely different period and cinematic style that can’t be replicated. Fortunately, Kelly Reichardt and co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond do take that neo-realist approach but also mesh it with minimalist cinema.
The screenplay is very loose as it’s mostly about this woman wanting to go Alaska with her dog for a new life but a mistake gets her in trouble. Even worse is that she loses the dog and goes on a quest to find her. Though there would be a couple of people that would help her out, Wendy has to face the harsh economy that is surrounding her as well as the little money that she has. She’s unable to afford a hotel room as money is mostly spent on food while she hopes to save for repairs or for the dog. What happens is that the money she has wouldn’t be enough as it would lead to an ending that is expected in neo-realist cinema. Yet, Reichardt and Raymond create something where the ending is a bit ambiguous but also a bit hopeful depending on what the audience might expect.
Reichardt’s direction is truly engrossing for the way she portrays this young woman’s struggle in a town in Oregon. Due to the film’s minimalist approach, there’s a lot of scenes where there’s not a lot of dialogue as the camera always follow Wendy in her struggle to find Lucy. Reichardt goes for a lot of wide shots to bring an example of the world Wendy is in as well as close-ups to capture her state of mind. Whether it’s a few tracking shots or hand-held camera shots, Reichardt is always making the audience be engaged by this young woman’s plight. Particularly for the fact that it’s an 80-minute film with a leisured pace and very straightforward editing that is courtesy of Reichardt herself as she creates a phenomenal yet engrossing film.
Cinematographer Sam Levy, along with Greg Schmitt, does an excellent job with the photography that has a realness to the look without any stylish camera work in order to have a gritty look. Production designer Ryan Smith does a good job with the art direction with the few sets created like the mechanic shop and the objects in Wendy‘s car. Costume designer Amanda Needham does a nice job with the costumes from the realistic look the characters wear including the blue jacket and brown shorts that Wendy wears. Sound designers Leslie Shatz and Eric Offin do a great job with the sound work to capture the locations of the town and places that Wendy encounters including her humming that is heard throughout the film.
The casting by Laura Rosenthal and Ali Farrell is superb with an array of memorable appearances from Will Oldham as a guy talking to Wendy about Alaska, Larry Fessenden as a crazy man in a park, John Breen as a grocery store owner, and Deidre O’Connell and M. Blash as voice roles of Wendy’s sister and brother-in-law, respectively. Other notable small roles include John Robinson as the nosy grocery store clerk who gets Wendy in trouble and Will Patton as a sympathetic though realistic mechanic who helps Wendy out about her car. Walter Dalton is excellent as an old security guard who helps Wendy out with a phone and advice about trying to find Lucy as he knows about the trouble she is going through.
Finally, there’s Michelle Williams in what is definitely one of her finest performances of her career. Williams brings a raw yet unglamorous performance as this young woman who is on her way to Alaska for a new life with her dog. Because of a mistake, she gets into trouble and loses her dog as Williams shows the struggle of a woman trying to get her dog and wanting to get to her destination. There is nothing showy or vain in Williams’ performance as she really brings that real yet fearful quality of a woman dealing with all sorts of circumstances. Helping Williams give that kind of determination in her performance is the dog Lucy. Lucy is a remarkable dog who allows Williams to show a sense of warmth as the film belongs to both Williams and Lucy.
Wendy and Lucy is a brilliant yet evocative film from Kelly Reichardt featuring a superb performance from Michelle Williams and a dog named Lucy as the title characters. Audiences wanting a realistic yet simple tale of a woman’s struggle that is relevant with the economic crisis of the past few years will be amazed by it. Fans of Michelle Williams will no doubt see this as one of her finest performances to date. In the end, Wendy and Lucy is a powerful neo-realist drama from Kelly Reichardt and company.
Kelly Reichardt Films: River of Grass - Old Joy - Meek's Cutoff - Night Moves (2013 film) - Certain Women - First Cow - Showing Up - The Auteurs #72: Kelly Reichardt
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