The Mopin? Road: Williams? Wendy walks a solitary path.
The Mopin? Road: Williams? Wendy walks a solitary path.

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While watching Wendy & Lucy, anyone who heard Mickey Rourke’s acceptance speech for Best Actor at the Golden Globes in January will be reminded of its most touching line: “Sometimes, when a man’s alone…all you got is your dog.” And just like The Wrestler, the film for which Rourke was honored, Kelly Reichardt’s third feature wrings a whole lot of emotion out of a sparse story, trading epic arcs for an achingly intimate shadowing of one character and the tiny, everyday cares that can add up to an overwhelming burden.

We encounter Wendy (Michelle Williams) on her way to Alaska; a carefully kept ledger tells us that she started out in Indiana and that her stash is only a few hundred dollars. Wendy sleeps in her car, awakened on the day we meet her in a small Oregon town by a Walgreens security guard (Wally Dalton) who orders her off the property and helps push her old Accord to the street when it won’t start.

Wendy’s day really gets bad when she takes budgeting to an extreme: She shoplifts a bit of food for herself and her dog, Lucy, and gets caught by an overzealous teenage security guard, who pushes his boss to follow store policy regardless of the trifling infraction. And so Wendy is arrested, leaving Lucy tied to a bike rack outside the store. Her anguished glances at the clock throughout the next scene’s slow-moving jail process make it unsurprising that when she finally gets back to the supermarket, Lucy is gone.

This first part of Wendy’s very bad day seems at first like a mere bump in her roadtrip, but you eventually realize that Reichardt (who co-wrote the story with her Old Joy collaborator, Jon Raymond) doesn’t intend to let you follow her hoodie-and-shorts-wearin’ heroine to Alaska. You don’t really get to know where Wendy came from; one brief, awkward phone call to her sister gives you the adequate impression that Wendy is not close to her family and doesn’t really have anyone to rely on. And you don’t get to know what happens to Wendy once she leaves Oregon: Tidy ever-afters, whether happy or sad, are the stuff of Hollywood storytelling—a field in which Reichardt has repeatedly demonstrated her lack of interest.

Instead, the director asks you to hang with one person as she deals with slowly soul-crushing setbacks, and the effect is devastating in its ordinariness. You may never have found yourself bathing in gas-station bathrooms without any emergency financial or emotional support system. But you’ve probably heard really shitty news about your car when your bills were already sky-high. You’ve probably loved a pet, or gotten yourself in trouble when you should have known better. Or maybe, like the security guard or the supermarket manager, you’ve just come across someone like Wendy and had the opportunity to help. And you either chose to help or kept up your self-defensive wall, averting your eyes and muttering “sorry.”

Wendy and Lucy espouses a cinema vérité style, with no music except for Wendy’s occasional humming (credited as “Wendy Theme Music” by musician and Old Joy star Will Oldham, who also has a bit part here) and many distanced tracking shots, as if we’re one of the small-town residents eyeing the stranger. Williams’ performance is somewhat distractingly culled from the Uglification School of Acting—really, even a dirt-poor Supercuts regular would have better hair than Wendy’s, and Williams’ still-beautiful face seems discrepant with her character’s off-to-work-the-canneries hardscrabble look. But once you reconcile these quibbles, Williams is heartbreaking and human, thoroughly believable as a seasoned stoic, yet not so steely that she doesn’t lose it when things start to snowball. You can consider Wendy and Lucy a parable for our current tough times, though the film was shot before the economy really went to hell. Or you can just admire it message-free, as one of those rare but keen pieces of art that engage and reflect the human condition with no apparent effort at all.