Wendy & Lucy, the second feature from director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), was recently named one of the top 10 American movies by the American Film Institute. And it belongs on that list. With the exception of maybe The Dark Knight, no other movie made in the United States in 2008 so overtly deals with what it means to be an American living -- or trying to -- in George W. Bush’s America.
In the film, Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy are on a cross-country trek from Indiana to Alaska in search of something better. Better than what, we’re never really told. There are hints of tough economic times in her home state and an estrangement from a sister, but we’re never given more than that. All Reichardt lets us know is that things are (relatively) booming in Alaska, and Wendy sees that at her shot at this maybe better life.
But Wendy runs into trouble in a small Oregon town. Her car, which doubles as her home, breaks down; she gets busted shoplifting; she loses Lucy. With each passing crisis, her already-shoestring budget, which she’s accounted for down to the penny, gets nibbled away. And with each problem seemingly bigger than the last, it becomes apparent -- to us and Wendy -- just how over her head she is. Maybe bumming it across America seemed like a good idea on TV, but Wendy clearly wasn’t prepared for it. She’s motoring across the continent in a 20-year-old junker of a car, she can’t afford to take care of herself let alone a dog, and she isn’t a light traveler. Among the numerous effects in her car are mementos like photo albums. How bad is life in Indiana really if she’s taking reminders of it? And while we’re asking questions, wouldn’t it have been easier to put the $500 or so Wendy has for the trip into a train ticket?
These narrative inconsistencies can become distracting. Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond (who also co-wrote Old Joy) give us this character, Wendy, to live and identify with for 80 minutes. But neither she nor her motivations are fully formed, and that colors how we consider Wendy after the movie ends. So thank goodness for Michelle Williams, whose performance goes a long way to making us care more than we should about Wendy. She pours everything into the role. Despite everything that happens to Wendy, Williams never plays her as the victim (like in Brokeback Mountain), but she never slides into pity territory, either. Williams’ convincingly navigates this very thin line, and her performance is one of the best of 2008.
But all that being said, Wendy & Lucy is never really about character. Not in the traditional narrative sense, anyway. Like she did with Mark (Daniel London) and Curt (Will Oldham) in Old Joy, Reichardt uses Wendy in Wendy & Lucy as a cipher for her exploration of America in the early 21st century.
In Old Joy, Mark and Curt as old friends who’ve grown apart but try to strengthen their friendship through a camping trip in the Oregon forests. This simplicity is a mask for an exploration of what it means to be an individual in modern America. We can infer that both Mark and Curt were freewheelin’ guys at one point in their lives. (Characters aren’t well developed here, either.) Curt stayed on that
path, hiking and camping and bumming off friends and smoking pot. Mark went the way of the “Responsible Adult,” getting married, settling down in a job, and preparing for fatherhood. Curt can’t stand Mark’s suburban domestication; Mark can’t understand why Curt is still, well, Curt. But despite their differences, they showcase the quandary of modern American individuality: Mark embraced the “American Dream” and has had his identity all but snuffed out, while Curt clings to his identity and as a result has been relegated to being an aimless drifter that exists as a marginalized figure in our modern society. What kind of choice is that?
Wendy & Lucy darkens that question by adding youth to the equation.
Wendy, a young person, exists in a constant state of identity turmoil. On one side is her sister, who is settled down and married. On another is a group of pierced and inked transients she meets who is living dangerously and hand to mouth. And there is the young, clean-cut teen who works at a supermarket and validates his citizenship by pushing his boss to make an example out of Wendy when she’s caught shoplifting. Wendy is in the center of this triangle, constantly tugged between domesticity, marginalization, and being a post-9/11 pod person.
At the core of this conflict is that question of individuality. Wendy can be domestic and culturally subservient, or she can be culturally independent and wholly ignored by society. What Wendy & Lucy adds to this choice, which Reichardt first posed in Old Joy, is that in Bush’s America young people have to make this decision entirely too early in their lives. Mark and Curt were nearing middle age and they’ve lived a little. Wendy and the hobos and the kid in the supermarket, though, are far younger and America is trying to rob them of the experience of experience. Reichardt takes a dim view of this. So where Wendy ends up, how she gets there, and what she leaves behind gives Wendy & Lucy a strikingly more dramatic -- and, frankly, depressing -- coda than the last moments of Old Joy.
With Wendy & Lucy, Reichardt really harnesses the power of the indie pulpit -- deliver a deceptively simple narrative as a means to challenge viewer perception of their world -- and demonstrates how good honest-to-God independent filmmaking can be. In the process, she solidifies herself as one of America’s authentic cinematic voices.
An edited version of this piece was published at EmanuelLevy.com.