In the film’s opening seconds, Wendy and Lucy’s energising mutual dependence is writ large with a remarkable, inconspicuous tracking shot that captures the pair frolicking through a woodland glade, setting the perfect tone for the heartbreaking minimalist weepie that lies ahead. Wendy is our heroine, a waifish tomboy on a journey up north where she hopes to find work in an Alaskan fish cannery. She’s a whisker away from financial penury when her minutely orchestrated plans go seriously awry and she loses her adored mutt during a prolonged stopover in the sleepy mill town of Williamsville, Oregon. As the quest to recover Lucy takes up the bulk of the story, a threat of loneliness and destitution bubbles frenetically beneath its stoical façade. Reichardt is interested in exploring the domino effect of a plummet into insolvency and the idea that existing on meagre budgets calls for extreme prudence, prioritising and, often, sacrifice.
Stylistically uncomplicated and admirable in both its honesty and the terseness of its storytelling, the film manages that rare feat of being both remarkably prescient and modest at the same time. Steering clear of the lefty sermonising that crept into ‘Old Joy’, Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond employ a sincere and discreet depiction of life on the fringe, be it through the kindly mutterings of a pension-age security guard (Wally Dalton), or the person of a small-time mechanic (Will Patton) who can’t cut Wendy a deal for her broken-down car without risking his quality of life.
The story, too, is never over-egged with superfluous plot, dialogue or imagery and every minutely judged frame oozes gently with detail and emotion.The feather-light enhancements that Reichardt does add via the photography (DoP Sam Levy’s elegant framing of Wendy in the deserted Northwestern streets) and sound design (the constant clatter and wail of passing trains which act as both a surrogate release for Wendy’s pent-up despair and a constant call for her to continue with her journey) work wonders in proliferating the hushed desperation on screen.
The film it most resembles is De Sica’s neo-realist landmark, ‘Umberto D’ (without the craven sentimentality and doggie anthropomorphism), but ‘Wendy and Lucy’ also contains thematic overlaps with many other great movies, such as the starkness and instability of communal life in Altman’s ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’, the muted despair in the Dardennes’s ‘Rosetta’ and the austere, heart-wrenching poetry of Kiarostami’s ‘Where Is the Friend’s House?’.
But central to it all is Michelle Williams’s beautifully restrained and humane performance (her best by some stretch) which embodies the pent-up frustrations, doubts, fears and dilemmas that this lonely soul has been burdened with. Her nuanced and naturalistic delivery wrings poignant truth from the realities of Wendy’s struggle for perseverance and dignity, where every decision is crucial, and every futile cry of ‘Lucy!’ stabs directly at the heart. It’s what makes this film the small miracle that it is.