No joy

Pub date January 28, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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If a road movie has car trouble and gets stuck in an unnamed town — say, somewhere deep in the Pacific Northwest — what we are mostly trained by our moviegoing résumé to see is a setup: for a lesson about small-town life, for a tangle with zombies, for an episode of boy meets girl. In Kelly Reichardt’s sparsely plotted film Wendy and Lucy — from a screenplay cowritten by Reichardt and Jon Raymond and adapted from a short story by Raymond — a stranger comes to town, but with no fanfare to speak of. And the events that follow are so quiet in tone and pace and, in a sense, so familiar that they’re almost unrecognizable as dramatic turns. After a while, something sinks in, and we adapt to the drifting rhythm of the film, in which the stranger, a transient young woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams), goes through hard times while barely anyone pays much attention.

Girl meets train hoppers. Girl meets Walgreens security guard. Girl meets bad luck and self-righteousness and various town-employed individuals, and the fact that these passing acquaintances exert meaningful influence over Wendy’s life and circumstances is mostly a reflection of how fragilely constructed that life is. Traveling north in a janky old car with her dog, Lucy (actually Reichardt’s dog, Lucy), in search of gainful employment in Alaska, Wendy gets stuck in a small Oregon city, and the film is a painstaking record of her attempts to stay on course, to keep it together for herself and her companion. The camera reflects these pains, patiently waiting with her while she exhausts her limited options.

Reichardt’s previous film, 2006’s Old Joy, also adapted from a story by Raymond, and a road movie minus the engine trouble, takes a similarly measured, muted, intimate approach, moving within delicately drawn boundaries describing a small narrative territory. Keeping company with a pair of young men during a two-day drive through rural Oregon, it depicts their reunion and a friendship that has thinned and shifted over the years, then takes them back home to their separate lives again.

The stories Reichardt and Raymond seem most interested in telling are these hushed, submerged ones that unfold unnoticed, barely recognized as stories. Signaling this in Wendy and Lucy are the high school boys who pass by Wendy’s car late one night idly talking some trash, one pausing mid-narrative to note, "Dude, fuck, there’s a lady in there." The dumb malice of the high school bruiser is a familiar enough cinematic element, and we brace ourselves for trouble as they approach, but these kids don’t even care enough to break stride, much less bring more problems into Wendy’s life. And that’s how it goes over the handful of days during which the film tracks her worsening circumstances, quietly asking us to notice her and remain attentive while the world proves largely incurious as to her fate.

But where Old Joy examined the intimacies and discomforts of a frayed relationship, the mood of Wendy and Lucy, two-name title aside, is set by Wendy’s solitude and lack of connection to those in her vicinity. She comes across as relatively incurious herself; fear or disinclination and, one imagines, some unreferenced web of relationships in her back story make her unwilling to engage here, and the few conversations she enters into are like financial transactions.

It’s absorbing to watch Williams vanish into this unapproachable character, but her near-wholesale disconnection makes it hard to be deeply moved by Wendy, even as we remain transfixed by a document of her quiet travails and maneuverings. The result is a sketchiness and a slightness, an impression that will fade. We witness and experience the film’s losses, disruptions, and sorrows, but from a rigorously maintained distance, in the life of someone who was, after all, just passing through.

WENDY AND LUCY opens Fri/30 in Bay Area theaters.