Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy & Lucy” may be — in competition only with Lance Hammer’s “Ballast” — the best film of 2008, and both movies have been so underseen by the public that they could be said to have not been released at all. (Or, at least, not publicized at all.) Critics saw them, though, and none that I know of have walked away unamazed by the simple but torrential forces of intimate storytelling told with a correctly situated camera and a respect for real people. “Ballast” is the more visually stealthy of the two, but Reichardt’s film is almost a structuralist triumph: how to make the most emotionally wrenching indie of the new era with as little narrative as possible. Based, like Reichardt’s “Old Joy,” on a short story by Jon Raymond, “Wendy” is as simple as a real catastrophe: a young homeless woman loses her dog. And the film’s genuine power comes not from transcending or expanding that piddling premise, but making the situation burn on your eyes like sulfur. Returning again to the north Pacific coast, where the grim weather only reflects the economic dourness at hand, Reichardt is so patiently focused on her heroine’s plight in life that you sense it’d be an injustice to read her as a metaphor for the economically disenfranchised swarming under affluent America’s loud-mouthed middle class.
Of course, the film isn’t about Lucy the dog but Wendy (Michelle Williams), a young woman of indeterminate origin traveling alone in her old car with only a pocketful of carefully accounted-for cash, hoping to make it from the worn-out ‘burbs of Oregon, where she finds herself, to the salmon canneries of Alaska. She is rousted, gently, from sleeping in a Walgreens parking lot, but then her car dies — and immediately we feel the sky begin to fall on her, and we see the dead ends cropping up all over Wendy’s life. When she attempts to steal a few cans of dog food from a supermarket, she’s caught and arrested, while Lucy is tied up helplessly to a bike rack outside. Hours tick by — the suspense is agonizing to a degree the makers of modern thrillers could only dream about — and when she finally gets released, dumping a chunk of her savings on a fine, she returns to find the dog gone.
On foot and friendless in the middle of nowhere, Wendy hunts for her companion, but the seeming impossibility of the task — and of Wendy’s predicament in general — is so convincing and upsetting the movie takes on the flavor of a personal trauma. The intimacy we share with Williams’ lost girl is breathtaking, managed as it is simply by an attentive soundtrack (you remember the sound of her breath long after the movie’s over), a camera placement strategy that somehow avoids agendas, and the actress’ formidable grip on her time and place and exactly how little emotion such a luckless woman would show the world in the worst of times. Williams has proven to be a faultless, often bruisingly naked actress, and here she is as completely submerged into a four-dimensional real person as any performer we’ve seen this decade. Which means, frankly, you could walk by her on the street and take no notice.
But “Wendy and Lucy” effortlessly evokes a larger reality — this is the reality of 99% of United States communities: decaying infrastructure, Wal-Mart sustenance, gone-to-weed neighborhoods, lives ruled by petty commerce and hollowed out by poverty. There’s not a fake moment or image anywhere, and the everydayness of the story becomes, in effect, its own tragedy. It’s fair to say, from the most objective standpoint, that the movie tests the tensile strength of your own innate empathy, and if you’re unmoved, the failure is yours. Which is, inevitably, over-hype: like its heroine, Reichardt’s movie is a vulnerable, small-boned, fragile thing in a world where digital hyper-editing and bullet-time violence command attention. By today’s standards, it’s virtually an anti-movie, a glimpse of a snapshot of a minor occurrence. But it’s far closer in its way to what movies are fundamentally about than 10,000 “Wolverine”s and “Hannah Montana”s.