With Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt has positioned herself as a major voice of a particular strand of American independent cinema represented by directors such as Todd Rohal (The Guatemalan Handshake) and David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls). I massively urge you to the cinema to catch Wendy and Lucy because it’s mighty impressive stuff.
What do the filmmakers I’ve mentioned all have in common? Their films are generally set on the fringes of American society where the economic periphery meets the beauty of nature. More importantly, their films are not so concerned with such mundane things as character arcs and three act Hollywood narratives. What they are concerned with is the American landscape. They ask questions such as: What story does the environment give us? How does the environment effect the subjectivity of people who inhabit that space?
Kelly Reichardt made quite an impression in 2006 with Old Joy, a superbly understated road movie starring Will Oldham (a.k.a. American alt-folk musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) and Daniel London. That film, set in an America bitterly divided by the politics of the Bush administration, was a warm and quietly comic character study about two friends whose lives had drifted apart. The pleasures of that film were accentuated by a gorgeous score by Yo La Tengo.
Wendy and Lucy is a much more difficult film than Old Joy, due in part to the lack of a score but mostly because the story focuses on a solitary protagonist trapped in limbo in a dead end town in Oregon. The titular Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a twenty-something girl travelling across America to work in the Northwestern Fish cannery. Stopping over in a small town with no money, Wendy becomes stuck when she is arrested for shoplifting, her car breaks down and she loses her dog Lucy (who incidentally also featured in Old Joy). But, as I alluded to earlier, merely reading this simple premise does real injustice to the complex filmmaking going on here. Kelly Reichardt shoots wide to let this Oregon town tell its own story; its worn buildings and desolate streets speaking of economic recession. Some critics have complained of the lack of insight into Michelle Williams’ character but this need to overexplain Wendy distracts from the fact that it’s the townpeople’s reactions to this strange fringe dweller that is most important. Wendy and Lucy isn’t a film about a girl and her dog. It’s a film that questions how a small American town’s economic strife affects the bonds that tie a society together. Wendy encounters some unexpected charity and generosity but more often than not she is faced with pettiness and indifference as people let their moral judgment become determined by their occupation.
One of the reasons Wendy and Lucy might be considered a more difficult film than Old Joy is that in some ways, Kelly Reichardt’s latest is a very angry film. In interviews Reichardt has described her film as a reaction to the devestation of Hurricane Katrina and how that disaster exposed a gaping wound of class division in America:
“We sort of started with this popular idea that if you’re poor in America, it’s because you’re lazy. As the gap [between rich and poor] has grown over eight years, so has the feeling that it’s okay. So we started with the idea that if you did have the wherewithal to change your situation and looked around and saw, oh, there is no opportunity here, I am going to venture out, is that really all you need to do it? Have some gumption? Is that all you need, if you don’t have the benefit of an education or a social net or a financial net or health insurance or anything? I think that that’s implied all the time, and I think that’s a farce.”
The film might seem grim and relentless but it’s not without humour. However, the humour in Wendy and Lucy is the type that the audience has to find. It’s never really obvious. As in Old Joy, often the humour is not in what people say but in how they say it. (Will Oldham himself pops up early in the film for a cameo which is simultaneously funny and creepy. Judd Apatow really needs to poach him for a film sometime soon.) But as with the rest of Wendy and Lucy‘s pleasures, the audience has to do some work in order to appreciate it. When so many so-called American indie films serve up reconstituted Hollywood wish fulfilment stories, I urge you to go out and experience a truly independent American auteur. It’s worth the effort.
SEE THIS WITH:
Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006)
The Guatemalan Handshake (Todd Rohal, 2006)
All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003)