Kelly Reichardt’s new film, “Wendy and Lucy,” is a lot like her last film, “Old Joy” (and presumably like the two before that, which I haven’t seen), in that it contains very little action and the barest wisp of a plot. The word “boring” will be applied to it by those find its minimalism exasperating, and I have no quarrel with them. But as I said about “Old Joy,” the fact that nothing really happens in it is only a liability if you go into it expecting something to happen.
And things DO happen in “Wendy and Lucy,” rather poignantly and hauntingly; it’s just that they mostly happen on the inside. The film stars Michelle Williams as Wendy, a willowy young woman driving a beat-up car through Oregon on her way to Alaska, where she hopes to find work for the summer. While stopped in an unnamed town (played by Portland), she’s hit with two major setbacks: her car breaks down, and her dog, Lucy, goes missing.
Almost penniless and already starting to resemble a street urchin, Wendy has been carefully keeping track of how much her trip is costing her, eating cheap food and sleeping in her car. Auto repairs are not in the budget. She has no phone, either, which makes the process of finding Lucy (checking in at animal shelters, etc.) even harder.
The rest of the film follows Wendy’s efforts to get back on track. She experiences the kindness of some strangers, including a helpful old Walgreen’s security guard (Wally Dalton), and the unkindness or indifference of others. Her efforts are marked by a sense of quiet desperation; we get the feeling, watching the beaten-down but resilient woman now, that her moments of loud, furious desperation already happened, back in her former life, before she hit the road.
Reichardt, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond, shows a sympathetic interest in the victims of a downbeat economy. While some of Wendy’s problems are of her own making, Reichardt withholds judgment. (Let’s face it, we all create at least SOME of our problems ourselves.) How does someone in Wendy’s situation, trying to find employment but currently destitute, get a foothold? “You can’t get a job without an address or a phone,” she says to the security guard, who replies, “You can’t get an address without an address, you can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.” Of course, when you do have a job, a phone, and an address, it’s easy to commiserate with those who don’t.
The film’s other major theme is more emotional: It’s the story of a girl and her dog. Lucy is currently Wendy’s only friend, and now she is lost — both of them are lost, really — in an unfamiliar city. Williams’ performance isn’t showy or grand, but it’s surprisingly effective for how low-key it is. Like Reichardt, Williams does a lot with very little, culminating in a bittersweet, quietly moving finale.
B+ (1 hr., 20 min.; )