There is a scene in the second half of 'Wendy and Lucy' that broke me. I was watching the movie until that point not knowing quite what to make of it. I have nothing against a movie that is spare, and does not have its cards laid out in front of you. But it was unclear to me whether this one had a dramatic arc at all or whether it would be the kind of film that is content just to show a slice of life. Turned out it was both, and therein lies its strength.
Make no mistake, 'Wendy and Lucy' is not for those who watch movies only for giddy entertainment. It sits squarely at the fringe of spare movies, austere even, in its single-minded regard for one character through its running length. Well, to be fair, two characters. Wendy, a young woman (Michelle Williams) traveling north across the country with precious little money is on her way to Alaska hoping to get employed in a cannery there. Her only companion is her dog, Lucy (that has some Golden Retriever in her). Somewhere in Oregon, Wendy's car breaks down, and down on her luck, she chooses unwisely to shop-lift in a grocery store. Arrested and taken away to the local precinct for hours, upon return she finds Lucy missing from outside the grocery store where she had been tied up for the duration of the presumed short trip to the store. The remainder of the movie is about Wendy's search for Lucy; and a testimony to life as hell for that for those who sit at the bottom of the country's economic structure.
For those who think that the United States is the land of plenty and of overwhelming opportunity, here is a movie to give you pause and to remind you of the many who are trying hard to get by with little, so little. Movies about the poor usually tend to romanticize poverty, and even those about characters who are living a hand-to-mouth existence tend to be upbeat in their assured promise of uplift at the end. There are few movies that choose to show those at the bottom in their true state, caught in a cycle of despair in a system unwilling to grant them any breaks. Here the movie reminded me of 'Frozen River' from last year. There is a line in 'Wendy in Lucy': 'To get a house, you need a house. To get a job, you need a job'. How did it get to be so? Everyone knows that with every economic casualty, it is those at the very bottom who are (irreversibly) affected the most. But to see this honestly depicted in a movie still comes as a shock. For someone like Wendy who does not own a permanent home or a phone, it is impossible to integrate into society with its current rules. How is she to procure a job, or find a lost dog even?
An intriguing facet of the movie is that Wendy's character remains without context - without information about her past or how she came to be in her current situation. She just is at this point in her life. Without a home, with few belongings, and without much money. How could someone get to such a dire condition, you may ask, but the movie offers few clues. While I admittedly found this frustrating when watching the film, this turned to something approaching admiration upon further consideration. Influenced by italian neorealism, the director Kelly Reichardt, in telling a story about the poor and the working class and in filming it in a no nonsense, documentary style, does not want to let the viewer get away with easy explanations. She respects her characters too much, as miserable and down on their luck as they may be, and will not permit the audience to judge them based on their past. She forces you to evaluate the movie on the basis of the current facts only, which beautifully subverts the easy way out with the 'she deserves this fate because of the choices she made in her life' judgment.
There is not a shred of sentimentality in this film, no false hope, no hope at all, actually. It is so resolutely realistic in its depiction of continuous hardship, that when some small measure of respite appears occasionally, even that seems too little. Which brings me to the scene in the second half of the movie, that came up suddenly and moved me to tears. Roger Ebert has long maintained that what moves him in films is not the very tragic, but instead, it is people doing good in the worst of situations and in spite of themselves. I will not give away the scene in question in "Wendy and Lucy" (and it is not the more obvious one later in the film), but it certainly makes Ebert's case beautifully.
As twee as it sounds, happiness is having your dog retrieve a stick you have just tossed. Any dog lover knows this. But for Wendy, and others in the world like her, who do not have any disposable income to indulge in other activities for fun, this is one of the few remaining free pleasures in life. To watch this movie with attention is to gain perspective on how terribly separated the 'have-not's have become from the 'have's in this world, even now. It is a sobering testimony.