Kelly Reichardt is a director who leaves a distinctive stamp on her films. They are known for telling simple stories in a subtle, understated manner which slowly reveals the minds of her characters. Even the most insignificant, nondescript character becomes fascinating in Reichardt’s hands, and she prefers to tell the stories of the insignificant rather than the grand, most of her films focusing on the obscure and ordinary people which films often overlook. Wendy and Lucy, one of her earlier films, is a favourite among her many fans, and an excellent example of her directing style.
The story and the characters are, at first glance, on a very small-scale. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young woman who is doggedly fending off homelessness. Accompanied by her beloved dog, Lucy, Wendy is travelling to Alaska where she has heard work is available at the fish processing plants. Although lacking resources, she has planned as carefully and sensibly as she knows how. She has saved enough money to provide food and fuel, provided she sleeps in her car on the way. She is optimistic, hoping for no more than a steady job and a home of some kind, which is within her reach if she can complete her journey north.
Wendy is what might be called a model homeless person. In addition to planning carefully and holding reasonable expectations, she tries to maintain as civilized a mode of living as she is able. She keeps herself neat and clean, washes regularly in public facilities, and avoids drink or drugs. This makes it all the more painful to watch her modest plans fail due to trivial but unavoidable hurdles.
From the beginning, small but insurmountable difficulties begin to complicate her life. When her car breaks down, she cannot afford to have it repaired. She thereby loses not only her mode of transportation, but her only shelter. Stranded indefinitely in a small town with no access to lodgings and virtually no chance of employment, she makes a serious mistake. Reluctant to spend any of her small store of cash, she steals dog food from a grocery store, and is immediately caught and arrested. Wendy’s greatest concern as she is taken to jail is leaving Lucy behind.
Wendy is given a fine, using up a substantial part of her savings, and is set free. She sets about trying to find Lucy, searching the town, posting flyers, and inquiring at the local animal shelter. Deprived of her car and lacking the money to rent a room, she sleeps on the ground in a park. It is an unsafe arrangement for a solitary woman; she is badly shaken by a frightening encounter with a stranger one night, and hides in a public toilet, weeping and terrified. The precariousness of her situation and her lack of options is painfully clear.
At last, she is informed by the animal shelter that Lucy has been located, and is in the care of the family that found her. Overjoyed, she searches out the address, arriving just as the residents drive away. She finds Lucy in the fenced back garden, and there is a joyful reunion as Wendy settles in to wait for the family to return. As she waits, pondering the safe and comfortable home Lucy has been offered, in contrast to her own uncertain life, the reality of her circumstances sink in. Wendy is forced to consider making the painful choice of leaving Lucy behind for her own good.
The story itself is uncomplicated, even ordinary; but in Kelly Reichardt’s hands it is compelling. This director has a remarkable way of bringing the audience inside the characters’ lives and emotions; and Wendy’s trials are portrayed simply but with respect and compassion. Michelle Williams does some of her best work with Reichardt, who has cast her in three of her films so far.
There is a reason Reichardt, although she directs low-budget indies noticeably lacking in ‘blockbuster’ qualities, is consistently admired by film critics and a favourite at alternative film festivals. She has a strangely fascinating way of telling a story that is entirely her own. With her latest film, Certain Women, enthusiastically received at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and her first feature, River of Grass (1994), restored and re-released earlier this year, it is a great time to become familiar with her work; and Wendy and Lucy would be an excellent place to start.
More by Kelly Reichardt:
Meek’s Cutoff (2010) Reichardt once again recruited Michelle Williams, along with a solid ensemble cast, for her unique take on a story of American pioneers. Fear and suspense build slowly as a group of settlers become lost in unfamiliar territory, and must decide who they should trust based on frustratingly limited information. An unresolved, lady-or-the-tiger ending adds to the film’s interest.
Night Moves (2013) The film follows three radical environmentalists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) who decide to blow up a hydroelectric dam, both during the planning stages, and afterward, when each must deal with the consequences in his or her own way. An eerie and fascinating character study that explores the grey areas of personal ethics.