America is full of people like Wendy Carroll, the young woman at the center of director Kelly Reichardt's small, supple new film "Wendy and Lucy."
Somewhere along the line—we're not given the usual facile reasons—her promise and possibilities have been thwarted. She is a couple of hundred dollars away from homelessness, living with her sweet-faced dog out of a Honda Civic in dire need of repair. These two have traveled from the Midwest (we're told Wendy has a sister in Muncie, Ind.) toward the hope of work, a little money and better times in Alaska.
"Just passing through," Wendy keeps saying, as if fearful of the uncertainties ahead.
Reichardt, who made the similarly plaintive "Old Joy," deals in paradox. "Wendy and Lucy" is a gentle film about socioeconomic misery, yet it doesn't seem soft, or false. Parked overnight in a Walgreens lot, Wendy and Lucy are awakened by a security guard (Walter Dalton), who has a job to do and a parking lot to keep free from vagrants … yet he becomes Wendy's confidant when she needs one most. A shoplifting excursion leads to an arrest, and then a lost dog, and then a darker night than Wendy has known for a long time. Will this woman make it?
Most of the soundtrack is scored by the sound of passing freight trains and the nervous little melody Michelle Williams hums over and over. The actress plays Wendy, and she has a rightness of touch in each moment onscreen, whether washing up at the Shell station or borrowing the security guard's cell phone to call the local animal shelter.
Director Reichardt focuses on the minute-to-minute, day-to-day challenges of what it takes to survive in these meager circumstances, and the film's political layer is lightly worn but distinct. This is how we treat our people, the film says, barely raising its voice.
"Wendy and Lucy" is a pre-recession film (I saw it at Cannes, though I didn't really get the hang of it until a second viewing here in Chicago). Then again, times are perpetually tough for people like Wendy, and for towns like this one—we hear that the big employer, the mill, shut down years ago. The calm visual style is a mellow American response to Italian neorealism, especially De Sica's "Umberto D" about a pensioner and his dog living on the edge of homelessness in Rome. "Kinda bad here," says Wendy's sister back in Indiana, during a tense phone call. Later, the security guard and Wendy talk about how you "can't get a job without an address." The film may be modest, but it is alert to its surroundings.
There are times it feels easygoing to a fault, and I don't think Will Patton (as a car mechanic) makes any dramatic sense in this milieu. He brings the wrong sort of theatrical brio to material successfully underplayed by everybody else, including real-life vagrants and hobos. Reichardt wrote the script with Jon Raymond (whose short story "Train Choir" served as the source material), and while she's quite aware of her story's ability to pull heartstrings, she refuses to deliver an ending that puts a neat little cap on things. The ending, rather, is more of a transitional clause. As Wendy swaps one form of transportation for another, we're left pondering the implications of a picture asking the question: If a Warner Bros. social-protest film from the early 1930s somehow got into bed with an American indie from the 1970s, how would the love-child turn out? Like this.
MPAA rating: R (for language ) Running time: 1:20 Opening: Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave Starring: Michelle Williams (Wendy); Will Patton (Mechanic); John Robinson (Andy); Will Oldham (Icky); Walter Dalton (Security Guard) Directed by: Kelly Reichardt; written by Reichardt and Jon Raymond, based on Raymond's short story "Train Choir"; photographed by Sam Levy; edited by Mike Burchett and Reichardt; produced by Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani and Larry Fessenden. An Oscilloscope release.