Michelle Williams passing through somewhere close to the heart

BY KAITE HANSON | MARCH 30, 2009 7:30 AM

Film Review: Wendy and Lucy
*** out of *****

For roughly 80 minutes, Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) seems on the verge of weeping yet refuses to show the world her sorrow. Even though she manages to hold back her tears, the audience (myself included) can’t help but cry at the end of Wendy and Lucy, a film about a woman for whom the phrase “down on her luck” is an almost laughable understatement.

The film, directed by Kelly Reichardt, is shot with an emphasis on life’s bleak and train yards, debris, and decrepit buildings. That, coupled with the minimalist, almost nonexistent soundtrack, lets the audience concentrate solely on the battles Wendy can’t seem to win.

On a cross-country trip to Alaska, Wendy has to scrimp for every penny: sleeping in her car, shoplifting for food, and changing in a convenience-store bathroom every morning. She seems to be completely alone save for Lucy, her golden Labrador retriever (who is Reichardt’s dog in real life).

When Wendy’s car breaks down in Oregon, conditions go from dreadful to appalling. After being arrested for stealing dog food, Wendy loses Lucy and must resort to sleeping on a piece of cardboard while her car is repaired at a mechanic’s shop (played by a wonderful but unsympathetic Will Patton).

Wendy’s only source of help or friendship comes from a nameless Walgreens security guard (Wally Dalton), a man with a heart as big as his eyebrows. His acts of kindness — helping Wendy move her dead car and lending her his cell phone — are small, but they’re what he can afford. This becomes strikingly evident when he gives Wendy some money and we see a $5 and a few $1s are all he can spare.

Williams turns subtlety into an art form in her performance, managing to demonstrate both Wendy’s ignorance and to showcase her steely dignity hidden within a hard outer shell. Wendy may scold Lucy for barking outside a grocery store, but scenes in which Wendy calls for her lost dog outside random yards and uses balled up clothing to form a trail to her location reveal Wendy’s true affection.

Beyond its uneasy ending, what is most disturbing about Wendy and Lucy is the unshakable reminder that these things happen to actual people. Although her ongoing misfortunes get a little absurd near the ending, it’s no stretch to imagine people scrounging in their cars for loose change, for whom even a simple car breakdown is a devastating setback. She repeatedly utters the phrase, “I’m just passing through” to people she encounters, but it sounds more like wishful thinking than reality. The truth is, Wendy could be stuck in that dying town — or one just like it — for a long time. The security guard puts it best when he and Wendy are talking about their difficulties finding work: “You can’t get an address without an address. You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.”

Wendy and Lucy makes viewers feel more depressed than inspired, but at the very least the film will make you glad to have a bed.

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