Wendy and Lucy

It takes a lot of courage for a theatre to present such a film as Wendy and Lucy because the likelihood making a profit is a miracle. Filmgoers want to witness sadness in short doses, surrounded by happy moments and swirling colors such as Slumdog Millionaire. So kudos need to be awarded to the Fine Arts Theatre for providing the only way that Asheville audiences will see this film on the big screen.

Kudos also to director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, River of Grass), one of our few women directors, for the courage to create such a film, one that is relentlessly distressing, and told in such painfully exquisite detail, scene by scene, that it requires an audience of courage to sit through it.

Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, Synedoche) is so talented that even with unwashed, chopped up hair and no make-up, you want to savor every moment of her presence in this sad, sad tale even while part of you wants to run out of the theatre in compassion fatigue.

On the one hand, Wendy and Lucy is a minimalist gem of great emotional power. As a film critic, I must applaud that achievement. In an arena in which most films are devoid of quiet realism, Wendy and Lucy stands out as a paragon of cinematic virtue. On the other hand, that brutal honesty also means that few people can really be predicted to enjoy the movie. Admire it, remember it, be curious about the director’s next film, appreciate the fine photography, add more reasons to love Michelle Williams, for sure, but “enjoy” it is probably beyond the ability of most filmgoers.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young woman trying to get to Alaska for what she hopes is a well-paying job in the salmon canneries in Ketchikan. She’s traveling in a derelict car with her beloved companion, a golden-haired mutt named Lucy (the director’s own pet). We don’t know why she’s on the road, why she’s near-penniless, why she has no parents or boyfriends or anyone else on whom she can call for help. The specifics of her past don’t really matter. Wendy is all the people, young and old, who have fallen through the cracks of the so-called “system” and are on their own without a safety net. We’ve all gone through those periods in life where one damn thing happens after another. Blame was the last thing any of us needed and the film wisely chooses the same non-judgmental response.

In a small town in Oregon, Wendy’s car breaks down, she gets arrested for shoplifting dog food, and Lucy disappears from where she was tied up to wait while Wendy spent agonizing hours at the local jail. With no cell phone, no money, no car, no address, and no smart-mouth survival skills, Wendy uses every ordinary psychological resource she has to find Lucy and get back on her journey toward solvency. She never considers giving up and only once, in a scene that will break your heart, does she allow herself to cry.

There are few women in Wendy’s scary small-town world, a clerk or two, but that’s it. Most of the people who play a part in her unfortunate detour are men. Some of them are in Wendy’s situation of poverty and thus dangerous–and the tension of that male threat is ever-present throughout the film. (How any one anywhere could ever allow a woman to be alone on the streets is totally beyond me.)

Other men offer her scraps of kindness. There’s the car mechanic (Will Patton, A Mighty Heart) who tells Wendy the car is hopeless but he won’t charge her the several hundred dollars it took for him to find that out. And the elderly security guard (Wally Dalton, The Mix-Up) who gifts her with a few dollars.

The mutt at least has found herself in a loving doggie foster home and when Wendy sees Lucy through the fence, she knows she loves the dog too much to claim her. Anyone who has ever had to let a pet go to another owner more able to care for it will know the pain of that decision.

Yes, Wendy and Lucy is a sad tale, but at least the film is short (only 80 minutes) and it ends on a note of hope. But that note is presented in haunting imagery that reminds us that today’s fragile economy may make the same demands on many of us that the Depression made on our grandparents. When you leave the theatre, the memory of Wendy’s courage lingers long enough so that you might look differently at the panhandlers on the streets near the theatre. We don’t need to

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