Down-on-her-luck Indiana native Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) has set out for Alaska with dog companion Lucy. She hears there are canneries there in need of workers, and, with little more than five hundred bucks to her name, she figures she has nothing to lose. The voyage north ultimately isn't as simple as she hopes, and she soon finds herself waylaid in a small Oregon town after her car breaks down and Lucy goes missing. For someone who has no family to help herwhen she calls her sister's house on a pay phone, her sibling acts like she's being put out just by having to talk to herand no easy means of making moneyshe is temporarily without a home address and a telephone numberWendy is left more or less trapped in a tough situation that grows stickier with each dollar she must spend.
Keenly observational and quietly poignant, "Wendy and Lucy" is a personalized hymn to economic strife and the sort of everyday financial demands that keep one from getting the leg-up they need. Based on the short story "Train Choir" by Jon Raymond, the film is deliberately paced, sweeping the viewer up in Wendy's moment-to-moment experiences and the obstacles she faces. Audiences used to conventional Hollywood storytelling and quick cutting will not be won over, and too bad for their short attention spans. What indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (2006's "Old Joy") concerns herself with is the natural, unhurried and involving depiction of a life in turmoil and very nearly out of the hands of the person living it. Reichardt is not overly ambitiousthe plot, as it were, is character-oriented and fairly simplisticbut she makes up for that in her perceptive direction and artifice-free writing.
"You can't get an address without an address, you can't get a job without a job," a kindly older security guard (Walter Dalton) empathetically tells Wendy. He's preaching to the choir. Wendy is not above making mistakeswhen she is caught trying to shoplift a few items from a grocery store and is turned into the police, it is the catalyst for Lucy's disappearancebut her actions are earnest and based out of desperation and necessity. The prospect of getting her car fixed is dauntingthe mechanic's (Will Patton) fees are out of her price rangeand the prospect of getting an odd job before she leaves Oregon is fruitless, since she is without contact information. When the security guard hands her money and tells her not to refuse it, it is a soaring solitary moment that sheds a hopeful light on humanity's ability for kindness. The rug is jerked out immediately after, however, when it is learned that he has handed her a five and a one. The security guard's heart is in the right place, to be sure, but six dollars might as well be six cents.
Michelle Williams (2008's "Synecdoche, New York
") delivers a sublime performance as Wendy, bringing dignity to a troubled young woman who has begun to feel like she doesn't have any. Her hair unwashed, her face tired and exempt of make-up, Williams is in every scene and lays her soul bare for the realistic benefit of her character. Her career choices since the end of "Dawson's Creek," including an Oscar-nominated turn in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain
," have been surprisingly smart, preferring parts that test her craft over starry, flash-in-the-pan vehicles. There isn't a false flourish in what Williams does here. Supporting players mostly lurk at the edges of the frame for one or two scenes apiece, but Walter Dalton makes a deep impression as the caring security guard who shows an interest in Wendy's well-being.
"Wendy and Lucy" lacks a finite ending. Whether Wendy finally overcomes her dire situations is left up in air, but a key sacrifice she makes in the final minutes is a selfless, touching first step in taking hold of her future. In a world where making an honest living is a constant struggle, "Wendy and Lucy" concludes on the only note it can. Some may find it unsatisfying, but no one will be able to deny its noble authenticity.