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Lost: Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Oscilloscope)

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Wendy and Lucy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
(Oscilloscope)

Reviewed by Sarah Silver

The opening tracking shot of Wendy and Lucy lasts long enough for viewers to set aside whatever happened to them earlier in the day and focus their attention solely on the details before them: a woman and her dog walking through a patch of wilderness. Notice the grain of the film, the green of the grass, the sheen of the dog’s golden coat. Like director Kelly Reichardt’s last film Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy’s minimalist aesthetic relaxes rather than taxes our awareness, allowing it to linger over minute details, which, in turn, become monumental developments.

A shot of a car seat as Wendy’s hand slips into its crevice groping for lost change contributes enormously to our sense of environment, the used, grape-fuzz texture of the fabric so macro-focused it becomes almost tangible. We feel the wilted quality of the faded bills that she counts, hoping to have saved enough to make it to Alaska to start work. We ache in the quiet glow of an abandoned phone booth lost somewhere in the obscurity of the Pacific Northwest. Change, paper money, and pay phones regain the relevance here that they have lost in today’s society of plastic and cell phones. These communal objects, passed from hand to hand, accumulating germs and grit, are vital to Wendy’s hand-to-mouth existence.

Wendy is displaced, with no fixed address, no phone number, and no apparent relatives other than a sister and brother-in-law back in Muncie, Indiana. Yet somehow, though she is living out of her car and unable to hustle regular meals for herself, she is keeping a dog named Lucy. When Wendy wakes up to a security guard knocking on her window telling her she can’t stay parked in the Walgreen’s lot, Lucy immediately snaps to attention and leans forward from the backseat, partially blocking our view of Wendy, who effectively becomes a dog-headed woman. This moment of surrealism in a mostly neorealist film visually indicates what we have already observed: Wendy’s bond with her dog is all that she has to keep her going. The car is dead, and the security guard helps push it off the lot and onto a side street. This little matter must then be set aside in favor of attending to more pressing matters; Wendy and Lucy need to eat.

The canine is tied up outside of a local grocery as Wendy proceeds to steal some dog food. However, just as she exits to catch one glimpse of Lucy’s expressive little face, Wendy is apprehended and escorted to the back office by a stickler teenage employee (Elephant’s pretty blond, John Robinson), who delivers one of the most pointed lines in the film (of which there are several, since dialogue is sparse and much of it is tremendously purposeful). “If a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog,” he chastises, breaking down lessons of allegiance and responsibility into one simple credo.

This Aryan boy dutifully fulfilling his functions is in stark contrast to the dark and disheveled Wendy, whose priorities are much less cut and dried. While it may, at first blush, seem irresponsible of Wendy to have a dog when she cannot take care of herself, perhaps it is, on the contrary, a step towards competence, as well as something essential for her own well-being. After all, pets are good for your mental health; their companionship can keep you sane. Wendy’s only concern as she is hauled off to jail, fingerprinted, and fined, is getting back to this creature in whose paws rests her entire reason for being. Of course, when she gets back to the lot, Lucy is gone.

Like the father and son searching for their lost means of transportation and livelihood in Bicycle Thieves, Wendy must imagine scenarios and act on faith that each of her presuppositions is true. Wendy systematically follows every slight lead, with no way of knowing if Lucy is even alive. Therefore, she must wander and inquire, patiently working around the pound’s hours, borrowing the security guard’s phone to call in periodically and posting fliers. When the security guard tells her about a lost dog that recognized the scent of his owner’s coat, Wendy strews clothes around town and in the woods. The placing of each garment is painful, since we see that all of Wendy’s belongings fit in her backpack and even the sacrifice of a small tank top makes her sack that much lighter.

Wendy is in a hole that she cannot seem to dig her way out of. “You need an address to get an address, you need a job to get a job,” remarks the security guard whose slight actions of charity end up making him the closest thing Wendy has to a human friend. Since each of Wendy’s immediate problems leads to another one, she can’t possibly assess the precariousness of her long-term situation. For the moment, she can only sit in the warm red glow of the Walgreen’s sign and try to figure out the most effective way to find Lucy.

Wendy will surely be seen as someone who could benefit from a more socialized America where people don’t mind “spreading the wealth around.” Indeed, there are specific references to a failing economy (“The mill closed down. Don’t know what the people do all day,” laments the security guard). But the emotional bankruptcy that Wendy experiences is more esoteric than any commentary on the state of current economics. Wendy’s existence feels futile; she drifts from problem to problem, getting nowhere and seeking something both larger than herself to believe in, and smaller and more vulnerable than herself to take care of. Though her desire may be misguided, like that of a teenage girl wanting a baby both in order to feel needed and to have an outlet for her affections, her instincts are natural and completely universal.

Like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy climaxes with a scene wherein nothing technically happens, yet tension is built up so high that the implications of what might happen are loud and clear. When a brutish homeless man discovers Wendy sleeping in the woods, the film speaks to us in code. Wendy’s porcelain doll face looks sweeter than ever in an extreme close up that highlights her arched eyebrows and the gauzy blue blanket at her chin; refined elements that contrast severely with the jagged branches of the forest and the inky darkness that envelops them. This rough vagabond, screaming as a passing train whistles hysterically, is all the more frightening because we don’t know what he’s talking about, and his repeated use of the word fuck becomes a searing weapon in the night, and a violent reminder of Wendy’s fragility and the direness of her situation.

Wendy and Lucy jangles along like coins in a threadbare pocket; elements are brought together by chance, and at any moment something might slip through an ever-widening hole in the fabric. Its structure is deceptively simple with enough space to allow for many levels of interpretation; each viewer’s own baggage will become one of the chance elements that helps form the story. Clocking in at a lean 80 minutes, there isn’t an ounce of fat. The movie is at once transcendental and grounded in a harsh reality. It is a story that may surface in your memory at unexpected moments when you slow down and reflect on your situation.

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