Wendy and Lucy (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Wendy and Lucy Poster

Wendy and Lucy is a love story, but not of the conventional sort. It's about how the vagaries of fate can sabotage a seemingly bright future and tear apart two dear companions. It's about the desperate search of one to find the other in a place where she knows no one, is homeless, and has lost her only means of transportation. These two face uncertain prospects and, even if they are reunited, might be forced apart by the reality of their situation. One of these companions is a twenty-something woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams). The other, Lucy, is a dog.

This is not, however, a typical girl-and-her-dog tale. It's not a kid's movie that relies on a cute animal and overcooked sentiment to stir up emotions. Director Kelly Reichardt approaches the subject in a detached manner - one that frequently keeps Wendy at arm's length. The movie has been filmed without bright colors; it's as if the grayness of Wendy's circumstances has expanded to engulf her surroundings. Or perhaps it's the other way around. This is not a three-hankie weeper and is far too understated and deliberate to find a berth on Lifetime. Lucy, in fact, is as much a metaphor as a flesh-and-blood pooch. She represents Wendy's ties to her past and all that they represent. Wendy clings to Lucy for the same reason she places a phone call to her callous, uncaring sister: she's not ready to let go. She never considers whether dragging Lucy on a long road-trip is in the dog's best interests, especially when the food runs low.

Wendy is headed for Alaska when circumstances bring her trip to an abrupt stop. Her car won't start and she and her dog are stranded in Oregon, far from home and even farther from their destination. To make matters worse, Wendy isn't exactly flush with cash. She has a stack of 20s, 10s, 5s, and 1s, but they're barely enough for gas and food to get her to her destination. The price of a car repair - even a small one - will break the budget. Then, to make matters worse, she is arrested for shoplifting when she tries to liberate some dog food from a local grocery store without paying. When she is released from jail hours later, she discovers that Lucy is no longer tied up where she left the dog. Now, Wendy is trapped in a city where she knows no one and her lone companion is missing. We feel Wendy's despair as it builds to near-panic. Fortunately, a kindly security guard (Wally Dalton) takes pity on her and offers to do what he can to help her with her search.

The transformation undergone by Michelle Williams to play this role is nothing short of astounding. The actress appears without makeup and with unstyled, dark hair. Her grab-bag clothing is, to say the least, unflattering and her exposed legs display knobby knees. Not since Charlize Theron got "ugly" in Monster has there been an instance of an attractive actress allowing herself to be captured by the camera in such unflattering circumstances. While this may not be on the level of physical deprivation endured by Christian Bale to prepare for The Machinist, in some ways this could be considered the female equivalent. Her appearance aside, it's Williams' acting that holds the film together. She's in every scene and often she's not playing off another actor. She radiates the despair, loneliness, and fear of a woman in her position, and we never doubt her. She doesn't resort to histrionics, but one can understand the emotions by gazing into her eyes or watching the trembling of her lips.

Wendy and Lucy is very much a character study with a slight, almost non-existent story. Yet, for all that the plot is minimal, it provides a non-judgmental look into the life of a woman who, while not undergoing a life-or-death ordeal, is facing something no less soul crushing. Reichardt does not load the deck by using sappy music or having the camera dwell on the dog's big, soft eyes. By avoiding such unfair and artificial tricks, she offers greater understanding of her main character and provides a deeper empathy of her circumstances. In the end, this is the story about finding the courage to let go and doing what is necessary to move on. The ending may be bittersweet but it is by no means tragic. Perhaps the reason there's a temptation to shed a tear is because it's not that hard to imagine oneself in Wendy's position.

Wendy and Lucy (United States, 2008)

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Wally Dalton, Will Patton
Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond
Cinematography: Sam Levy
U.S. Distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures
Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 2008-12-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1