The other week, as part of the New York Film Festival, I saw a screening of Wendy and Lucy, directed by Kelly Reichardt (director of Old Joy, which I haven’t seen, but has been widely acclaimed). The main character, Wendy, out of maybe three total featured characters in this movie, is played by Michelle Williams. I started to take more notice of Williams after Brokeback Mountain, and I really have to say, that though I liked the direction and script of this film, I cannot imagine another actress doing a as good of a job as Williams did in this role, as she, essentially, carries the entire movie. Overall, I found this film to truly be one of the most emotionally genuine movies I’ve seen in the past few years.
The plot is not very complicated. In fact, all that really “happens” is that a woman loses her dog. Reichhardt has been called by critics, and I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the quote anywhere, something along the lines of a chronicler of contemporary American anxiety, and I tend to agree. Her subtle style—she doesn’t’ even use a soundtrack aside from Williams’s humming—in my opinion, is perfect for capturing these types of uniquely American day-to-day existential tensions and frustrations. With Wendy, a young woman traveling with no safety net and everything she has in the world to seek new life and better-paying job, every seemingly-mundane obstacle she is presented with in the film becomes almost insurmountable and increasingly plunges her perilously further into homelessness.
The landscapes Reichhardt uses—mono-colored strip malls and forgotten train track surrounding areas in suburbia, are key in communicating Wendy’s solitude in a bleak, bureaucratic, sterile, emotionally detached, and apathetic world. It is alternately incredibly frustrating and ultimately heartbreaking to witness what Wendy goes through (haven’t we all been through some version of if not the exact same situations?) just for basic sustenance and survival– a mechanic knowingly and blatantly ripping her off, her treatment from the self-righteous teen supermarket employee who gets her arrested, the inept police officer trying to take her fingerprints, etc. The emotional pinnacle of the film comes when Wendy is forced to sleep in the woods by the train tracks and is confronted by a scary mentally disturbed vagrant. Williams displays vulnerability to an amazing degree— throughout the film, you can feel the tension build and build although Wendy remains seemingly outwardly composed (seriously amazing acting). But, in the scene after she has this frightening confrontation with the vagrant, Wendy totally loses it in the gas station bathroom, and though it is in a sense, a relief from the tension, I felt like I entered a new stage of grief right along with her.
The most gut-wrenching part, though by far, is in the final scene with Lucy, Wendy’s dog. I don’t want to give anything away, though. I just think Reichhardt and Williams do an amazing job of honestly presenting depressingly real situations without getting “movie-of-the-week” and tear-jerky. Not once did I feel manipulated into feeling for Williams, and yet I cried & cried & cried. It actually kind of ruined my entire day—something that hasn’t happened since I saw Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (a completely different movie, btw) — which fortunately and unfortunately, to me, is the sign of a well-done movie.