One woman and her dog: Michelle Williams as Wendy, with Lucy the dog in "Wendy And Lucy", directed by Kelly Reichardt.  (Photo: Oscilloscope Pictures)

I Love Lucy, Declares Wendy, An Alice In Lonelyland

By Omar P.L. Moore/January 30, 2009

The thoroughly absorbing "Wendy and Lucy" is cut from a cloth of powerful visual silences, each piece of fabric a story of its own.  Silence is supposedly golden but it's both lonely and deafening for Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams), a woman on the edge of life on a Trans-America road trip to a better one, aiming to leave Oregon to journey to the Alaskan wilderness with her sole companion and only true friend, her dog Lucy.  Homeless and with precious little money to her name, Wendy sets off for Ketchikan, Alaska, but the trip will be anything but easy.  Her existence confines her but so does the harshness of human nature, except for one man, a security guard (Walter Dalton) who develops a friendly banter with her.  It's not so much that Wendy, of whom little is otherwise known, visits life but that life's circumstances visit her.  The rules of life, where one man after the next tells her what the score is on various levels, each of them alone with her one-on-one, are a theme throughout.

"Old Joy" filmmaker Kelly Reichardt directs, co-writes (with Jon Raymond) and edits "Wendy And Lucy", a film that has no soundtrack save the aching heartbeat of a woman in a desperate situation.  Not until the film's end credits do we hear a sustained soundtrack of any kind.  We hear but don't see Wendy humming occasionally -- and there is one brief moment of source music at a supermarket but it is incidental and peculiar to the location -- the kind you'd hear in a supermarket or elevator.  "Wendy And Lucy", based on Mr. Raymond's story "Train Choir", is non-judgmental of its protagonist and doesn't ask us to sympathize with her by playing music designed to tell us how to feel.  We feel for her regardless.  With each silence and setback we are plunged deeper into the despair and isolation that Wendy feels.  By empathizing with Wendy we become Wendy, while Miss Williams, wonderful here in the role, never asks us to.  That's a tribute to her effective performance, which doesn't smack of self-pity.  In another actor's hands Wendy could have been a baleful plea for tea and sympathy; in Miss Williams' hands Wendy is a bare and authentic creation.  The film's pedestrian pace is expedited just enough for us not to wallow in Wendy's trials and tribulations, though even the coldest, most emotionally removed person will feel increasingly frustrated and stifled by the hurdles she encounters.

The film's two stars -- one human, the other a dog named Lucy in real life -- do well together. 

Shot with a digital video camera, Sam Levy's exquisite cinematography conveys depths of loss, silence and solitude in dozens of spare frames where Wendy walks from one end to the other, the only living thing traveling within a motionless camera shot.  Other shots are monochromatic, conveying everything and nothing as the lead character verges on surrender to defeat, and not the embrace of life's toughest tests.  Very few optical tricks are employed in a film whose episodes echo documentary footage.  Moreover, "Wendy And Lucy" can be said to be a video diary of American life in the poorer reaches of society and its margins -- specifically the chasm between those holding onto precious little in their lives and those having nothing at all to hold on to.  To that end Ms. Reichardt doesn't glamorize poverty though the visual poetry of her film speaks volumes.  There's a naturalness and realism that pulses throughout "Wendy And Lucy", which for all intents and purposes is a love story.  One night scene provides excruciating suspense courtesy of a loud, high-pitched squeal of a passing train which seems to take forever to pass.  Moments like these render us as helpless as the main character.  In "Wendy And Lucy" silence is the biggest character and acts as both an indictment of a society and an angry, internal scorn by Wendy.  There are moments when Wendy threatens to break through that thick wall of silence and quiet anger, but via Miss Williams she harnesses her understandable fury perhaps realizing that we as an audience have been Wendy's heartbeat of support from the start.

While watching "Wendy And Lucy" two other recent films come to mind: last year's "Marley & Me" and 2007's "Into The Wild".  Both based on true stories, the former is self-serving and laborious, with a tortuous showcase of a final 20 minutes, an example of using a dog for filler or sacrifice, while the latter, Sean Penn's film based on Christopher McCandless, a rich kid who abandoned mainland American society to live in the Alaskan wilderness, is a little over-stylized and staged despite good performances.  By contrast, "Wendy And Lucy", neither exploitative nor contrived, symbolizes both a country that in the Bush II years has abandoned its people as much as it does a portrait of an abandoned America, one which has reduced everyday human traffic to Darwinian man and beast, survival of the fittest.  Ironically, the economic circumstances of contemporary Oregon, where the film was entirely shot, betray this with what is left of its working class, although the white-collar industry has definitely gone elsewhere, perhaps the way of businesses situated in Middle America that have vacated it, as described so succinctly in Thomas Frank's book What's The Matter With Kansas?

A great, timely and moving silent film for this new century, "Wendy And Lucy" is independent filmmaking at its very best.

With: Will Patton, Will Oldham, John Robinson and Larry Fessenden.

"Wendy And Lucy" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America and opened today at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco, while continuing in New York and Los Angeles.  The film's duration is one hour and 20 minutes.  You must see this film -- must.  Here is a list of theaters where the film will be playing.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2009.  All Rights Reserved.


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