Wendy and Lucy, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Wendy and Lucy, directed by Kelly Reichardt

This beautifully judged rites of passage (non-) shaggy dog story combines searing critique with genuine pathos.

Growing Pain. Film review – Tom Jennings
Treading a fine line between tragic sentimentality and gratuitous miserabilism, this minimalist gem of downbeat cinematic neorealism has barely any narrative, little dialogue and scarcely more characterisation or action. Add a general tone of decay, depression (economic and psychological) and hopelessness – not to mention a denouement snatching away the one redeeming feature in the life of a lead who wasn’t even particularly likeable to start with – and you’d appear to have a recipe for the pure voyeurism of abjection, as a defensively self-contained Wendy sees her precarious survival plan go predictably pear-shaped. Yet a judicious sprinkling of social interaction and nuance, merest suggestions of backstory, meticulous pacing and construction of atmosphere through naturalistic soundscape, landscape, design and cinematography allow Michelle Williams’ magnificently restrained, entirely convincing performance to simultaneously encourage and undermine tendencies in viewers to disavow vicarious pleasure at other people’s misfortunes with the bad faith of charitable sympathy.
We connect with this homeless lass in her twenties travelling north with devoted dog Lucy from a Midwest that had nothing to offer, pursuing vague intentions of fish-cannery drudgery in Alaska (“I hear they need people there”). The journey stalls along with her old banger’s engine in a suburban Oregon whose gloomy climate echoes decrepit infrastructure and prospects – a local garage mechanic’s estimate being way beyond her dwindling funds. So too are routine provisions, and she next gets caught ineptly shoplifting petfood. On returning hours later from the police station’s bureaucratic machinery cranking out a modest – to her, catastrophic – fine, Lucy has disappeared from her tethering post. In mounting desperation Wendy searches the unfamiliar neighbourhood on foot – now sleeping rough, protected by neither car nor canine companion – and, buoyed only by the minor kindnesses of strangers, manages to persevere long enough for what seemed a highly unlikely reunion. Nevertheless, one supreme act of agonising altruism later, Wendy continues alone on the time-honoured hobo freight-train trail.
Reichardt’s previous film, Old Joy (2005) – also based on a short story by co-writer Jon Raymond – explored divergent middle-aged trajectories from failed 1960s counterculture. Wendy and Lucy’s acute specificity of detail and resonance instead condenses the dilemmas of generations of contemporary lower-class American youth unable to identify with – or afford the luxury of – the hopes and dreams of prior idealisms. Amid the social wreckage of families and communities and collapsing welfare safety nets, when no collective ambitions remain, only a beleaguered individualism of barely subsistent decency can counter anti-social pathologies of consumerism and crime. Respecting Wendy’s fragile, fallible character armour, the filmmakers invite orthodox blaming of those at the sharp end for their own shortcomings – then demonstrate how such moral judgementalism dehumanises while denying harsh reality. Meanwhile this couple’s co-dependence is shattered by mature self-determination, signalling a coming of age in a heartless world which disallows the simple consolation of childlike love. Thereby, through mundane understatement rather than hysterical gesture, a society is subjected to utterly withering condemnation.
Wendy and Lucy is out now on DVD.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 14, August 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

Posted By

Tom Jennings
Aug 8 2009 19:42


Attached files


Aug 8 2009 20:07

I want to watch this film, so I won't read the review until I have...

Thanks for posting though, very timely.

Dec 13 2009 18:28

I just watched this. I thought it was good, very depressing,but the basic premise of the film I didn't find too believable. That she would have absolutely no prospects in Indiana, and so risk everything on this far-fetched Alaska idea. You would have thought worst case scenario she could do waitressing or something...

Dec 13 2009 21:02

I haven't watched this (but I did live in IN), so I don't know exactly how it is portrayed... I could believe someone thinking that there are "no prospects in Indiana". And personally I've certainly known people to be drawn by the appeal of making a quicker few grand working a season in the Alaskan fisheries industries versus trying to find/ working a dead-end job waiting tables in Indiana.

Dec 13 2009 21:04

Stephen, It's actually not uncommon to run off to Alaska to make a bank quick.

Dec 13 2009 23:31

shit well okay, I take that back then.