America is about to see a sharp upturn in hard-luck stories, which makes Kelly Reichardt’s small-scale drama Wendy and Lucy sadly timely. The Wendy in question is a lost girl in boyish hair and clothes, traveling in search of gainful employment. On her way from Indiana to Alaska, where she hopes to find work in a fish cannery, Wendy has only Lucy, her faithful canine companion, to stave off loneliness and despair. Lucy, then, is like the primal, innocent Lennie Small to Wendy’s George Milton, a migrant worker fallen on hard times (Steinbeck would follow Of Mice and Men decades later with his non-fiction account of Travels with Charley, his dog).
Wendy’s dwindling funds spell sleeping in her twenty-year-old Honda Accord and washing up in gas station bathrooms, a routine impeccably observed by director Reichardt and his resonant leading lady, Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain). Humans have gradually pushed Wendy to the margins: perhaps burned once too often, Wendy’s sister and brother-in-law in Muncie prove callously disinterested in her welfare. So when Wendy hits a wall while passing through an Oregon town, it’s all too easy for her problems to compound into an unthinkable personal tragedy: the disappearance of her only friend, Lucy.
Adapted by Reichardt (2006's fine indie Old Joy) and Jon Raymond from Raymond’s short story “Train Choir,” Wendy and Lucy qualifies as patient but engrossing neorealism. Without money to throw around, Wendy’s fate is no longer her own, but subject to the random acts of kindness and cruelty of the men she encounters: a priggish grocery clerk (John Robinson of Elephant), a blithe garage owner (Will Patton of A Mighty Heart), a threatening drifter (Larry Fessenden), a sympathetic security guard (Walter Dalton).
The last makes the greatest impression, symbolically presiding over an empty mall parking lot, from 8am to 8pm daily. The guard first rousts Wendy, but he warms to her humanity and feels for her in her plight, providing an object lesson to us all for the cold days ahead. Wendy asks, “Not a lot of jobs out here, huh?” “I’ll say,” the guard replies. “I don’t know what people do all day.”
Reichardt’s goal is to answer that question, following Wendy through each disappointment and indignity. The tactic could only work with an actor at the film’s center as strong as Williams. Without ever showing off, Williams remains purely reactive to each moment, each subtle up and down from the low point that is her median. It’s equally true that Williams’ work would be wasted on a lesser director.
Reichardt, too, makes a simple story, and one that could easily be shameless (dogs being the quickest way to an audience’s heart—as Barry Levinson proves in What Just Happened), into a quiet testament to the discarded of our society. Dog-pound metaphors may be played out, but like a drifter who takes nothing for granted, Reichardt squeezes the last drops out of the bottle with a heart-tugging tracking shot of dog after dog in their cells at the pound. It’s an age-old story: too few care about these strays, and those who do can’t save them all.