Wendy and Lucy

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenplay: Jonathan Raymond & Kelly Reichardt
Stars: Michelle Williams (Wendy), Will Patton (Mechanic), Will Oldham (Icky), John Robinson (Andy), Wally Dalton (Security Guard), Larry Fessenden (Man in Park), Brenna Beardsley (Grocery Cashier), Ayanna Berkshire (Pound Employee), Michael Brophy (Grocery Store Stocker)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2008
Country: U.S.
Wendy and Lucy DVD
Wendy and LucyKelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is a small, spare, and genuinely beautiful film, very much the spiritual descendent of Italian neorealism, which French film critic André Bazin described as “an ideal synthesis between the rigor of tragic necessity and the accidental fluidity of everyday reality.” Reichardt’s film is very much the product of such a synthesis, and it is not surprising that Bazin was thinking of Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D. (1952) when he wrote those words because, both structurally and thematically, there is great deal of similarity between that film and Reichardt’s. Both focus on a person who exists on the edges of society, barely hanging on in a world that is sometimes overtly cruel, but more often casually indifferent, but also offers glimpses of genuine humanity and decency. Both films also hinge on a lost dog, which would seem to be the very apotheosis of easy sentimentality, but rather offers a perfectly distilled vision of the fundamental human need for love and connection.

Reichardt and coscreenwriter Jonathan Raymond locate their story in the chilly dampness of the Pacific Northwest, where Lucy (Michele Williams), a young woman who is traveling from Indiana to Alaska in hopes of getting a job at a fish cannery, has been temporarily waylaid. With her slight, boyish appearance and tentativeness, Lucy is clearly not the kind of headstrong wanderer that Sean Penn celebrated in Into the Wild (2007); rather, she is searching for some kind of stability and connection, which she currently finds only in her relationship with her dog, Lucy. Wendy’s desperation to maintain that connection leads her to shoplift some dog food at a grocery store in the small Oregon town where her car has refused to start, and when she is apprehended by an overeager stock boy and hauled off to the police station, she is forced to leave Lucy tied up in front of the store. It is little surprise that the dog is gone when she finally returns.

That, in essence, is the film’s plot, and its very sparseness (not to mention minimal running time of 80 minutes) demands that the audience look beyond what is simply happening. Reichardt could be described as a cinematic minimalist, but only if you consider the spare nature of the narrative and the gentle simplicity of her visual style. What seems simple about Wendy and Lucy is precisely what draws us in, holds us, and leaves such a lasting impression. There isn’t any speechifying and really not very much dialogue, but instead a lingering sense of place and time and human interaction--some cold, some compassionate, but always real.

Reichardt isn’t seeking to dazzle us with plot machinations or hammer us with the kind of dramatic overkill that mainstream “art films” like Revolutionary Road feed on so ecstatically. Instead, she focuses on the small details--the little, easily missed bits that add up to that thing called life. She draws out of her actors deep levels of nuance, in the process eliciting the best performance of Michele Williams’s career. The frustration Williams evinces when being told to move her car from a parking lot, the flash of hope that crosses her face when receiving a bit of good news, the sense of despair she feels talking on the phone with a sister who is more distant emotionally than she is geographically--all of these moments take on the kind of great emotional weight that usually attend events of significantly greater urgency, which is what makes Wendy and Lucy such a moving experience.

There is plenty to read into Wendy and Lucy from a political-social perspective, as well, especially given that Wendy’s financially destitute circumstances and struggle to get to where she wants to be so unnervingly matches with the current national economic downturn, but I prefer to consider it in its fundamentally human dimensions, seeing it as a film that conveys what it means to be alive, with all the attendants victories and sorrows. Some have suggested that Reichardt isn’t being particularly fair by heaping so much misery on Wendy, but that’s not the point. Rather, it is that Wendy, despite all that happens to her, never loses her own sense of responsibility to herself and others. While the final shot could be construed as tragic, it is better seen as a gentle paean to the always difficult but ultimately rewarding nature of taking responsibility for your own life.

Wendy and Lucy DVD

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Subtitles English
  • Four experimental short films from the film faculty at Bard College
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • DistributorOscilloscope Laboratories
    Release DateMay 5, 2009

    Wendy and Lucy was originally shot on Super 16mm, and the transfer on this DVD faithfully replicates the theatrical look of the film. The image has good detail and beautifully presented, albeit largely muted, colors, but there is a definite presence of grain that reflects the original celluloid and contributes to the film’s overall visual effectiveness. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, but the majority of the sound is relegated to the front soundstage with only minimal ambient effects.
    The supplements on this disc related to Wendy and Lucy are restricted to a theatrical trailer, which is somewhat disappointing as I would have loved to have heard a commentary by the filmmakers. However, the disc does include a real treat: a series of experimental short films by faculty members at Bard College that have been curated by Kelly Reichardt, who also works there as a visiting assistant professor: Boston Fire (1979) and New York Portrait (1978-81) (Peter Hutton), Scary Movie (Peggy Ahwesh, 1993), flight (Les LeVeque, 1997), and How to Fix the World? (Jacqueline Goss, 2004).

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Oscilloscope Pictures

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

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