There are few films today that explore the parameters of poverty and capitalism that have the same power as older films such as Umberto D, Nothing But A Man, and The Killer of Sheep. When film and television do explore such issues, it is often trapped within the confines of sociological case studies, designed more to explain to a mostly middle-class audience about the social pathologies and criminal behavior of the poor. The films mentioned above avoid such trappings, and instead present its characters as fully rendered human beings, capable of kindness as well as cruelty, whose perceptions and actions are nonetheless shaped by the socioeconomic realities of their lives.
Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 feature Wendy and Lucy follows more in the tradition of these earlier films, a rare breed that chooses to treat those who live within the margins of society with the respect they rarely get in popular culture. The plot of Wendy and Lucy is fairly simple. Wendy and her dog Lucy arrive in Portland, Oregon on their way to Alaska, where Wendy hopes to find lucrative work in the fishing canneries. While there, she faces a series of mishaps that force her to delay her trip and tax her meager financial resources. First her car breaks down. Realizing she will have to spend what little money she has to get it fixed, she shoplifts dog food at a nearby store, gets caught, and arrested. She spends more money to pay the fee to avoid a trial two weeks later. After she’s released from jail, she returns to the store where she had Lucy tied up outside only to find that the dog is gone. Wendy spends the rest of the film searching for her dog and trying to get her car fixed. But along the way, she finds herself in more precarious situations that grate on her both emotionally and financially.
The quiet power and strength in this film, which is only 80 minutes long, lies in its social commentary about our society and the way it treats the poor and indigent. Reichardt doesn’t betray her story with didacticism, but rather carefully and masterfully reveals her vision through story and character. Every step of the way, the film reveals how society and relationships are shaped by the exchange of money. After Wendy sleeps in her car for the night in a Walgreen's parking lot, she is told by the security guard that is she in violation of parking rules. Already we see that rules, codes of conduct, and laws benefit those who are only willing to shop and spend. The young clerk at the store who catches Wendy shoplifting reports her zealously and with a rigid allegiance to rules and authority. He is the glue that holds a society together that keeps people like Wendy out. When Wendy finally finds Lucy at a foster home, she comes to the heartbreaking realization that her dog will be better off with a new family. Even her relationships with her sister is fraught with monetary exchange. During a phone call to her sister and brother-in-law, Wendy is promptly disregarded by her sibling with the stated fact that she is unable to loan her any money.
There are moments however when this rate of exchange is subverted, in which characters act not out of monetary gain but through the simple goodness of human exchange. Ironically, the security guard who tells Wendy to move her car out of the parking lot turns out to be the most humane of all the people she meets in Portland. He helps her move her stalled car out onto the side street, advises her on where to go shopping, and even loans her his cell phone so she can keep in touch with the local pound. The relationship that quietly develops between these two offer a bright ray of hope in so much building despair.
Reichardt is able to explore so many complex issues precisely because she allows the story to unfold slowly through characters and actions. The movie is rather slow-paced but is thoroughly engaging. When it was released, Wendy and Lucy was compared to such Italian neorealist films as Umberto D, which likewise tells the story of an old man, stricken in poverty, and his relationship to his dog Flag. Yet unlike neorealism, Wendy and Lucy is steeped far more in experimental filmmaking. The cinematography is slow and deliberate, capturing the minute details of Wendy’s world, lingering on wide and medium shots of nearly empty streets and roads, the inside of a grocery store, a jail cell, then closing in on tighter shots of fruits in stalls, of fingerprints being taken, to reveal how claustrophobic and alienating this environment is. There is no musical score. Rather the ambient noises of traffic, wind blowing through trees, footsteps on gravel express Wendy’s loneliness. Michelle Williams gives an understated performance that quietly builds in frustration as the story moves forward. She portrays Wendy as a young woman numbed by society, on the cusp of cynicism and jadedness. Her only trusting friendship is with Lucy. The emotional bond she forms with the dog snaps when she realizes she must give her up. Williams portrays this scene with the kind of quiet restraint that gives the film its emotional strength.
Recently, Reichardt’s latest film, Meek's Cutoff along with Terence Malick's Tree of Life, has stirred a debate among film critics about whether watching such movies is the equivalent of eating your vegetables: movies that are good for you but are boring as hell! I won’t delve into that debate since I haven’t seen any of the movies mentioned, but I do think it’s important to point out the difference between boredom and slow-moving. Boredom is a total disengagement of the things around you. A film or novel can be slow-paced and not be boring. Rather only the subject for what ever reason can fail to engage its viewers or readers. Wendy and Lucy is not such a film. I failed to not care about Wendy’s plight. We’ve all been in the situation where our dreams or goals are thwarted time again by bad luck. And we’ve all experienced times when we’ve had to sacrifice the things and people we love. Wendy and Lucy is one such exploration into the human condition, beautiful, quiet, and evocative in its vision of love and sacrifice.