Inward Bound

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14





      Wendy and Lucy, director Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her 2007 indie marvel, Old Joy, returns to a Pacific Northwest of equal parts natural beauty and desolation. Dressed in androgynous clothes, her hair chopped and boyish, Michelle Williams stars in Wendy and Lucy as a slacker waif adrift in a subculture of neo-hippie train jumpers building bonfires in the woods, bruised blue collars and a collection of vets and disabled hard-luck cases waiting at the corner store to exchange cans for change.

    In this buddy film of a very different order,Wendy travels with her beloved dog Lucy to the promise of a job in Alaska. But as the film unfolds, that possibility shimmers like a mirage in the distance.With shades of Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, about another young woman adrift and alone, Wendy and Lucy features an almost mute wanderer whose bad-enough luck takes a turn for the tragic when her car breaks down en route.That devastation is quickly surpassed by Wendy’s arrest for stealing cans of dog food for Lucy at a grocery store where an overzealous clerk, who looks about her age, refuses to let her off easy. As Wendy is hauled away to jail, Lucy remains tied to a bicycle rack, one more tragic loss in a string of escalating disasters.These losses come with a devastation comparable to that in Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neo-realist masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief.

    Early moments in Reichardt’s film establish a narcotic, laconic rhythm defined by the slow-moving squeal of train cars passing through and the cottony stillness of the small Oregon town where Wendy’s trip derails. But Reichardt soon settles in for the meat of Wendy and Lucy:Wendy’s frantic search, after leaving jail, for the dog who functions as both protector and companion on the road. The male buddies in Reichardt’s astoundingly intimate, moving Old Joy wandered unproblematically into the woods. But we brace ourselves for some inevitable horror as Wendy sleeps in her car and—when it’s towed to the mechanic’s–crashes on a cardboard pallet in the woods.

    Unlike Emile Hirsch’s adventuring, Alaska-bound dropout in Into the Wild, Wendy’s is not a purposeful estrangement from the world. Her travails are flocked with tragedy, a matter of circumstance rather than choice. A telephone call home to Indiana makes it clear there is no safety net for Wendy. Her sister immediately interprets the call as a request for money and cuts the conversation short.There are foils and fairy godfathers along the way, but the overall impression Reichardt creates is of a cold, hostile world as immune to individual suffering as the Depressionera America of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? or The Grapes of Wrath.The only comfort Wendy finds is from the drugstore security guard (Wally Dalton) who first rousts Wendy from sleeping in his parking lot and then watches her contend with the ruined car and lost dog. His gestures of kindness are pitiably small, compromised by his own limited means.

    Though a less satisfying effort than Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy exhibits Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond’s deftly subtle touch and both writers’ compassionate take on how deeply poverty settles into their characters’ bones. Cars are an especially telling indication of characters’ straits:They double as homes and are shared between numerous people.

    The downside to an otherwise heartfelt, elegantly simple film is in the reduction of Wendy to her chain of unspooling miseries.

    Reichardt allows us so little access to her interior life that she seems opaque, her comatose demeanor hard to identify: Is it deep depression or soft-headedness? Old Joy went deep inside the loneliness and need for connection of its heroes, and Wendy and Lucy’s impact often resides in external events. Wendy can feel more like a symbol of economic despair than the soft and pulpy realer-than-real men of Old Joy. But thank goodness for Reichardt’s committed focus even on symbols in the escalating miseries of our own hard times. -- Wendy and Lucy Directed by Kelly Reichardt At Film Forum, Running Time: 80 min. --