Reichardt’s ‘Wendy and Lucy’ a study in modern grimness
December 29, 2008
Director Kelly Reichardt earned much attention and critical acclaim, even some awards, for her 2006 film “Old Joy.”
My take was that Reichardt was being honored as much for her potential as her achievement, and even more so for her audacity. “Old Joy” was a minimalist experiment to the extreme. There was virtually no plot; just two old friends heading off into the Oregon woods for a camping trip. They didn’t fill the space with revelations or philosophical chatter; the dialogue was, if anything, as spare as the story.
But there was something undeniable in the way Reichardt used the camera and sound ” or more to the point, lack of sound ” to create mood and atmosphere. Still, I watched “Old Joy” waiting for something to happen. Only it never did.
Another way to look at it is that what happened is “Wendy and Lucy.” It is Reichardt’s next film, and while it continues her small-scale aesthetic, it also greatly enhances her template. Here there is a story, dialogue, character development, an ending. By the standards of almost any other filmmaker, “Wendy and Lucy” would qualify as minimalist. But compared to “Old Joy,” this is expansive. It also vindicates all the critics who hailed the earlier film, and saw in it the spark of an exceptional storyteller. Adding plot, emotion and character to her palette, Reichardt has crafted an intensely touching, absorbing movie, one that will appeal to more than the critics, and fans of the exotic.
Reichardt here is back in Oregon, and back with writer Jonathan Raymond, whose story was adapted in “Old Joy.” Michelle Williams (“Brokeback Mountain”) stars as Wendy, a young woman on her way from the Midwest to Alaska. The wheels have already begun coming off Wendy’s life; even without a spoken word, that downfallen vibe radiates off of Williams, whose work here is extraordinary.
When her car breaks down somewhere in Oregon, her financial and emotional fortunes sink another few notches. The despair is vivid ” in Wendy’s face, the clothes she wears, the way she talks. Reichardt shows her attention to detail with the setting: Virtually all of the film takes place in a neighborhood that is slipping from middle-class to shabby, with mechanics shops bumping up against houses. It practically mirrors Wendy’s slide.
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And then things get worse, as the one possession Wendy cares about ” perhaps her one link to routine, normalcy and sanity ” her mutt, Lucy ” goes missing.
“Wendy and Lucy” is an intensely sad movie. I would say relentlessly sad but for the character of a security guard who works in the neighborhood where Wendy is stranded. The nameless, elderly man can’t offer Wendy much; to even call them friends would be stretching it. But he represents compassion, the idea that there are benevolent forces in a rough world. His presence provides a necessary balance in an otherwise grim tale.
Of course, the grimness of the story makes “Wendy and Lucy” a reflection of our times. More and more, the idea of harsh economic times, of disappointment, of people moving around in hopes not of something great, but mere stability, are becoming reality.
One other element that Reichardt employs here, that she left out of “Old Joy,” is an ending. This one is a doozy, heartbreaking, poignant and all too real.