Another month, another movie about a female protagonist who loses her dog. But unlike Bolt and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, this month's model is about as far removed from a kid-oriented comedy as you can get. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, whose previous film Old Joy earned raves for its depiction of two male friends who have stayed in touch long after they began to grow apart, Wendy and Lucy is a gritty, slow-paced look at those who live on the margins of society, made all the more believable by Reichardt's lo-fi aesthetic. Shot in the trainyards and empty parking lots of Portland, Oregon with a cast of mostly unknown actors, the film has a close-to-the-ground documentary feel that draws us into the economic hardships of its main characters far better than a typical low-budget studio movie would do.
The part of Wendy, a woman who is only passing through Portland when she runs into a bit of trouble there, is played by Michelle Williams, one of the very few "name" actors in the cast. We know very little about Wendy when the movie begins, and we don't know much more by the time it ends, but we do learn that she has very few possessions, besides her car and her dog Lucy and a little bit of cash. We also learn that she has come from Indiana and that she now wants to go north to Alaska, where she hears there are good jobs. And we learn that she doesn't complain much about her lot in life, she just gets on with it, though not as industriously as some.
Early on, she collects some cans and bottles, hoping to earn a bit of money by recycling them, but when she gets to the depot, she finds a long line-up populated by people who have filled entire grocery carts with such items. One man, sitting in a wheelchair, offers to hold her bag for her while she goes and does other things, because the bottles she collected wouldn't be worth the time she spends waiting for her turn in line. Wendy gives up and decides to give him the bottles outright.
She then goes to a grocery store, where she ties Lucy to a bike rack outside while going in to pick up a few items. But instead of buying the items in question, she tries to shoplift themand is promptly nabbed by a grocery clerk who hauls her in to the manager's office, demanding that she be punished so as to "set an example." (Note to fans of classic Christian rock music: The board on the manager's wall includes a card or sticker with the Stryper logo. Also, the judgmental grocery-store clerk is wearing a cross around his neck.) The cops take Wendy back to the station, forcing her to leave Lucy behind; when Wendy is finally released, she discovers that Lucy is no longer there outside the store.
This alone would be enough to upset Wendy. But she has other problems, too. Her car won't start, and the nearest auto shop stays closed for quite some time. (When it finally does open, the mechanic who runs the place is played by Will Patton, a familiar character actor whose habit of barking into the phone feels just a tad more "actorly" than the low-key performances of just about everyone else.) Sleeping in her car was never safe to begin with, but when Wendy turns it over to the mechanic, she needs to find another place to spend the night, and her slumber in the forest is disturbed by a somewhat threatening man. And when she places a call back to Indiana, looking for someone to talk to, she gets the long-distance equivalent of a cold shoulder. All of these incidents underscore how alone she is without her canine companion.
One of the recurring themes in this film is the way people, and thus the relationships between them, are defined by their jobs or their social positions. Wendy has arrived in Portland only recently, and she doesn't know anybody, except when they cross her path in some sort of official capacity; in the credits, many of them are identified by the likes of Mechanic (the Patton character), Police Administrator (Marilyn Faith Hickey), Pound Employee (Ayanna Berkshire), and so on. Ironically, it turns out that Lucy the dog (played by "Herself") is one of the few "characters" in this film who has been humanized to the extent that she has an actual name!
One of the more interesting things about the film is how one of these anonymous characters starts out as just another member of the establishment standing in Wendy's way, yet turns out to be increasingly sympathetic to Wendy the longer she gets to know him. When we first meet that character, known simply as Security Guard (Wally Dalton), he is tapping on the window of Wendy's car and waking her up, telling her she cannot spend the night in his employer's parking lot. But when it turns out Wendy's car won't start, he helps her move it off the lot and onto the street. And then he gives her some useful directions to other places. And then, when Wendy returns and tells the Security Guard that she has lost Lucy, he offers Wendy words of encouragement. Ultimately, he lets Wendy use his cell phone, even telling her that she can leave his number with the dog pound, in case Lucy shows up and they need to leave Wendy a message.
The fact that one or two people are out there, willing to help Wendy even as they follow "the rules" laid down by their bosses, provides a welcome ray of decency in a world that often seems indifferent at best and hostile at worst. You also have to admire Wendy's determination to keep forging ahead, little by little, despite the seriously disappointing setbacks that keep coming her way. Wendy and Lucy may be more timely than ever, given current economic woes, and on a certain level it remains quite sad even when things turn out better than you might have expected. But it is not without the odd ray of hope, and that counts for something too.Discussion starters
- Why do you think Wendy left home? Does the film give us any clues? (Note the long-distance phone call.) What would you have done in her place?
- Does the fact that Wendy tried to steal something affect your view of her? Especially after she gave up trying to recycle the bottles she found? What about after we learn how much money she has? How sympathetic should we be to her plight? Is she getting what she "deserves"? Worse?
- The grocery store clerk says people who can't afford dog food should not own a dog. Do you agree or disagree? Why do you think Wendy had that dog?
- What role do "the rules" play in this film? Note how the Security Guard says he has to kick Wendy off the lot because "that's the rules," and how the grocery-store clerk says "the rules apply to everyone equally." Should they apply to everyone equally? Where should grace come into the story, if at all?
- Does the youth or age of these characters affect how they follow "the rules"? Do any of these characters ever go beyond "the rules"? Around them? Do they break them in any way? Can they help Wendy without breaking them?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Wendy and Lucy is rated R for language (maybe half-a-dozen four-letter words and one or two names spoken in vain). The character Wendy is also threatened by an encounter with a man who disturbs her sleep in a park.
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