Wendy and Lucy is an unexpected tour-de-force. It’s probably the simplest, cheapest, and shortest film to be receiving accolades this awards season (AFI just named it one of the top ten movies of the year), but it’s also one of the most surprisingly affecting.
The film is directed by Kelly Reichardt, whose Old Joy remains one of my favorite films of the last five years—a subtle, mostly silent but deeply profound examination of growing up and learning to live past one’s regrets. Wendy and Lucy is much in the same vein as Old Joy. Both are set in the Pacific Northwest, are very organic in style and content, and feature little-to-no dialogue. Both are about hippie-ish young idealists who must reckon with a world that is harder than they’d hoped it would be. Both are shot largely outdoors. Both feature dogs.
In Wendy and Lucy, Wendy is portrayed by Michelle Williams, in one of the most quietly devastating performances of the year. Lucy is a cute golden Labrador Retriever. The film is about their journey together, meandering somewhere in Oregon on a slow quest up north. Wendy, channeling Chris McCandless, is a live-off-the-land type girl, determined to make it to Alaska where she might get a job in a fish hatchery. She looks like hipster, albeit a ragged, world-weary one without the usual tongue-in-cheek accoutrements. She has little in the world other than her car and her dog, and she loses both during the course of the film (but finds one of them).
My first reaction after seeing this film was, “wow, that was remarkably sad.” I almost resented it for how much it punched me in the gut. But upon further reflection I see that as much as it is a film about deep human despair, it is also a film about love—a simple, beautiful love between a young woman and her dog. It’s also about resiliency, and how we push ourselves to keep going, even when we’ve lost everything. It’s a hard, somber film, told with a soft, reassuring touch.
The film is not directly about anything political, but it is as much about America in 2008 as Old Joy was about America in 2006. Which is to say it is very much a comment on the current state of things in America. But also like Old Joy, Wendy has a timeless quality to it, addressing existential issues through a very current lens. Wendy is a film about being poor—struggling to make ends meet and never being able to get ahead. Like other, similarly eloquent independent films about being poor in America that have come out in 2008 (Ballast, Chop Shop, The Wrestler), Wendy doesn’t offer simple answers. It grieves and suffers with its subject without wallowing in pity, while also affirming life and hope and love.
It’s a film I highly suggest you all see before you make your best of 2008 lists.