'Wendy and Lucy'

- Best feature

- Best female lead: Michelle Williams (Oscilloscope Pictures)

Movies about people living on the fringes during hard times have a particular resonance in the multiplex of 2009. Sunshine Cleaning touches on the struggles of the working poor. Wendy and Lucy gives us a young woman and her dog that are just now discovering homelessness.

A feather-weight drama that drew oh-so-brief notice during the cinema's "awards season," Wendy stars Michelle Williams as the title character, on the road in an old unreliable car, living in that car with her dog, Lucy.

She's on her way, she says, to a high-paying summer job in the fish canneries of coastal Alaska. The car breaks down in small-town Oregon. The mechanic ( Will Patton) would like to be of help, but if she can't pay he can't fix it.

Wendy tries to collect cans to get some spending money. She gets caught shoplifting by a guy young enough to be a moral absolutist. No mercy for the flat broke.

And then the dog gets lost and Wendy spirals into a depression looking for her, avoiding the cops (she can't sleep in her car here) and trying not to become a single homeless woman "statistic."

That's pretty much the whole story in this plain but nicely-executed Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass) film. Her camera trails Wendy as her fragile life unravels, as Wendy hunts, ever more despairingly, for her lost dog -- her one friend, the one creature she's let depend on her.

Williams (Brokeback Mountain) seems a little too well-fed and looked after to be homeless. But she gives Wendy a marvelous, down-on-her-luck pathos with a hint of not-all-there/hasn't-thought-this-through edge. Williams lets us see Wendy counting her change, the wheels turning as she grabs at whatever money-earning ideas her limited worldview suggests.

Every performance plays like real life observed. You'd swear that Patton had been under a hood his whole life, trying to keep this or that old beater running, hoping to save somebody some money and make enough himself to pay the rent.

Essentially a short parable tucked into a meditative 80 minutes, Wendy and Lucy takes too much time to get to a too-obvious conclusion. But Williams and Patton and the folks of this corner of Oregon serve up a slice of "indie" that, if it doesn't reach the level of "inspires," at least feels timely and true.