October 19, 2008
San Jose Camera Cinema Club
80 Minutes — December 10, 2008 (limited)
Kelly Reichardt [Old Joy]
Michelle Williams [Dawson's Creek; Dick; If These Walls Could Talk 2; The Station Agent; Brokeback Mountain; I'm Not There]
Another incredibly slow-moving (in the best possible way) story from Kelly Reichardt who also directed the quiet and beautiful OLD JOY, which was about two ex-hippies in search of an Oregon hot springs. This one is about Wendy, played with steadiness by Michelle Williams, a woman “just passing through” a tiny Oregon town when her car breaks down. She is on her way to the fisheries of Alaska in order to make some money. Her partner on this journey is Lucy, her loyal dog. We meet Wendy as she’s woken up by a security guard as she sleeps in her car. He wants to be kind to her, but rules are rules, and he helps her push the car off the Walgreen’s property.
Wendy keeps a log of money spent on her way to find fortune in the Klondike and her funds have dwindled lower than she’s comfortable with. She needs her car fixed and she needs some new dog food so she heads to a store where her urge to save a few more dollars results in a shoplifting charge which results in her dog being lost, which results in her world being turned upside down.
The plot isn’t much. Woman and dog break down on their way to Alaska. But to paraphrase Gene Siskel, it’s not what the film is about, but how it’s about what it’s about. Michelle Williams drops all of her glamor in order to play a woman who does all of her bathing in a Shell Station bathroom. She is distrustful of everyone but her dog. She is estranged in some way from her family, although we are never told what happened. Her license plates are from Indiana and she’s made it as far as Oregon. She doesn’t really hesitate to shoplift, she is comfortable around the homeless who join her in line to recycle cans. She also constantly hums the same tune as she walks from place to place. The time frame of the film is probably three days. And some of the scenes are made up of the mundane things one does while waiting for a car to be fixed, or in Wendy’s case, the auto repair shop to open.
Strangers help her and she helps strangers. The film can be seen as an example of the hidden underclass whereby one financial emergency (or simply a larger-than-expected bill) can devastate a person. She has just about enough money to make it to Alaska–until her car breaks down. She moves in a working class circle. She laments the job market with the Walgreen’s guard. She has no address nor phone number to offer people if they ask. The slide into homelessness could not be more slippery. It’s been reported that the director began thinking of this story after hearing right-wing blowhards blame the victims of Katrina for not leaving New Orleans before the storm hit. Why didn’t they just hop in their SUVs and head north? There is a sizeable group of people for whom a tiny car repair, or a massive hurricane would alter their existence completely. As each new expense pops up for Wendy to deal with, Williams’ eyes reflect a barely-hanging-in-there sensibility. It’s no wonder the homeless guy she meets in the woods is talking to himself. Life is hard. You try your best to get by.
Williams is spectacular in the role. Her wide expressive eyes tell us that she can’t possibly accept another setback. She stays mostly silent, except when speaking with her dog. The unconditional love of a pet might just be keeping her alive. There are scenes of Williams’ face when speaking to a store manager, a cop, a dog pound employee, where she hits it just perfectly. She has realistic breakdowns and seems to bring out the best in people with her open, available face.
And I probably won’t forget the scene involving a tiny kindness by the security guard. I may have teared up.
This film isn’t for everyone. You will feel every one of its 80 minutes. There are long passages where nothing happens and nothing is said. A substantial part of my enjoyment was probably based upon my own life. I have slept in my car (an Acura, not an Accord) in chain store parking lots in Oregon. I’ve been awoken by cops in the morning and told to move on. I’ve taken a train through the Pacific Northwest surrounded by other young people on their way to the canneries. I’ve had cross-country trips stalled because my VW couldn’t go another mile. I’ve “just passed through” most of the towns in Oregon and Washington and Northern California.
My love of the vibe and pacing of this film may be because I’ve been in Wendy’s exact situation, and it certainly rang true for me watching it unfold on the screen.
Like OLD JOY, give WENDY AND LUCY a chance to wash over you. Don’t watch it if you’re already tired. Just observe and you’ll be rewarded.
WENDY AND LUCY
, Kelly Reichardt
, Michelle Williams