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Sad, idle lives

by Archives February 3, 2009

The premise of Wendy and Lucy is simple enough: a drifting young woman and her dog encounter a series of unfortunate events that strand them in an unnamed northwestern American town en route to Alaska. In the process, the two become separated, and what is revealed says much about the state of “Anytown, USA” and the world that we find ourselves in today.
The film’s director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt (along with Jonathan Raymond, whom wrote the original short story upon which this film is based) subtly rolls out this simple tragedy around the sparest of plots and starkest of locations. We encounter those that live at the literal edge of this banal town; a horde of train riding drifters down by the tracks, a Walgreens security guard in a parking lot, can-collecting town vagrants behind a grocery store and a questionable mechanic in a small, filthy shop. Reichardt pushes the middle class towns’ folk off screen, which has an almost eerie effect. It is like this town is nowhere and everywhere all at once in today’s America. Those like Wendy, who have opted (or perhaps had no choice) to drift from town to town in search of work must exist in the shadows. The cinematography can see them, but no one else seems able to.
Wendy is played by Michelle Williams (Dawson’s Creek, Brokeback Mountain) and she does an admirable job developing the simple yet profound bond that is present between Wendy and Lucy. She is a character that seems to have long ago hoped for some form of abstract third way in life, and within the context of this film are encountering her at a divisive moment that will serve as representative of the loss of innocence. She longs to start a new life in far off Alaska, which always seems just beyond reach for Wendy.
Williams’ recent Oscar nomination for her turn in Brokeback Mountain most probably aided greatly in ushering this film to the screen. Thankfully, Reichardt’s exceptionally patient and beautifully meditative work is receiving its due on the fringe of mainstream American cinema (her previous film Old Joy is certainly worth viewing). Although at times Williams seems stuck in one emotional gear (and can irritate) she nevertheless delivers a specific sort of performance that meshes well with the stillness and simplicity of this film. The photography certainly helps her by saying so much with so little.
In a season where all of American cinema’s bloated turkeys are on parade for “critical praise” it’s not shocking to note that this film has been for the most part overlooked for any major hardware considerations. This is unfortunate, because this film perhaps says more about the mire that America finds itself in than any of the studios major Oscar season offerings attempt to say about their respective themes. And it does so with so very little in the process. The message of Wendy and Lucy is simple and devastating.
With an economic downturn poised to effect the sort of cinema that will be made in the United States, one only hopes that small, inexpensive and affecting films such as this will become the “third way” in American cinema. Sadly, that reality seems about as far away as Alaska for Wendy.

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