‘Wendy and Lucy’: A bleak beauty

In light of the present economic downturn, Kelly Reinhardt’s Wendy and Lucy, playing at Images Cinema until April 16, strikes a particularly resonant and disturbing chord. Reinhardt portrays a world of hungry dogs and humans: a world where cans for coins won’t save you, and run-down cars are just one more obstacle in an increasingly luckless day. “I’m not from here, I’m just passing through,” maintains Wendy, the main character. The solace that Wendy finds in this refrain is both empty and symbolic, and by the end of the film, she has hardly moved at all.

In this short but poignant drama, Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams), a forlorn 20-something, tries to get from Indiana to Alaska to find work at a cannery. Her one companion is Lucy, a “yellow-gold” mutt with an energy level that compensates for the lethargy of Wendy’s malnourished frame. We meet Wendy as she is passing through upstate Oregon, but a series of unpleasant and unexpected events, unfolding over two desolate days, provide seemingly insurmountable complications.

Reinhardt sets the tone of the film through a series of images completely lacking in sound or soundtrack: vagabonds silhouetted against a blazing trashcan fire, the urban wilderness of the train yard, bad teeth, muted colors. These are people that have been through the wash a few too many times. Given this setting, it is no wonder that hardship is never far from Wendy’s doorstep. On her first day in Oregon, she finds that her car has broken down, and just minutes later, she is caught shoplifting at the local grocery store. Wendy is taken downtown and charged a whopping $50 that she doesn’t have for bail, but what’s worse is that Wendy has left Lucy tied up to a pole outside the store. By the time she is released from her holding cell, Lucy has disappeared. The rest of the film revolves around Wendy’s search for Lucy, which is acutely lacking in hope but full of emotion. The bond between Wendy and Lucy, although unexplained, is wonderfully simple: in an unforgiving world, they have only each other.

Wendy and Lucy is a film that shies away from dialogue in favor of more aesthetic communication, and given the relentless impassivity of Wendy’s face, which carries the film, audience members must instead study the details. The key to Wendy’s character reveals itself in the way she rubs the soles of her feet after a long day, rolls up an empty bag of dog food and brushes her teeth in the bathroom of a gas station. She wears just one outfit throughout the film: a light plaid shirt and brown shorts that cut-off at the knee, revealing skinny, sinewy calves. Her face, pale and framed by the boyish cut of her dark hair, is frozen in the attitude of someone who is on the verge of tears, but never quite succumbs.

As she deals with the loss of her dog and her ever-faster diminishing savings, we experience the depth of Wendy’s desperation through the camera’s long shots, which focus on a frame long after the actress has left it, highlighting her absence. The only sounds that punctuate her struggle are found in the hum of passing cars, inappropriately cheerful snippets of radio commercials and the jarring rings of telephone calls. Through it all, Reinhardt’s direction gives us a sense that Wendy is caught in an eternal limbo. The entire state of Oregon becomes a cell, inescapable and disastrously bleak; it seems unlikely that she will ever get to Alaska.

Williams’ performance is, if nothing else, consistent: she never once breaks from a sustained portrayal of a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and her depression is pervasive. Meanwhile, Wendy’s plight, which borders on unbearable, is made less severe by the hovering presence of a wizened, fairy-godfather-esque security guard (Wally Dalton), whose genuine but inexplicable kindness is perhaps the only thing keeping Wendy’s life from falling apart.

In all, Reinhardt’s 80-minute film is gritty yet elegant, successful despite sparse dialogue, minimal plot and a reliance on symbolic communication. This movie artfully shows and does not tell, but if you’re looking for a breather on a Friday night, this movie isn’t for you. While the film offers a wealth of images, realism and distressed emotion in this story of tough love and absent luck, Wendy and Lucy falls far short of enjoyable.