Put simply, Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” is a “Grapes of Wrath” for the contemporary era. In place of the Joads, we encounter a young woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy who are trying to make their way to Alaska, a symbol of economic opportunity in the way that California was for the Joads. Although “Wendy and Lucy” is far less ambitious than John Ford’s 1940 masterpiece, I regard as a better film in some ways since it operates in the neorealist tradition, a genre that corresponds to the lives of working people much more than Ford/Steinbeck’s melodrama.
Like so many neorealist movies, “Wendy and Lucy” revolves around a seemingly mundane subject matter, in this case the young woman’s attempt to track down her dog, the only source of companionship in a very lonely and economically deprived existence. If the bicycle in “The Bicycle Thief” was a means to economic survival, the tawny mixed Labrador breed serves to keep Wendy going emotionally in a heartless world.
In the opening scene, we find Wendy chatting with a group of homeless men warming themselves around a bonfire next to the railroad tracks in a small Oregon town. When they learn that she is headed off to Alaska, they give her encouraging words about the good jobs to be found in the canneries, a reminder of another John Steinbeck Depression era novel: “Cannery Row”.
Like the Okies in “Grapes of Wrath”, Wendy and the men are the hapless victims of a stagnant American economy. Since “Wendy and Lucy” was made before the subprime mortgage collapse, it is more topical than ever. We can surely expect the growing ranks of the homeless and the unemployed to now take to the road in search of their own Alaska. There of course is added irony in Wendy heading off to Alaska in light of Sarah Palin’s election campaign. With a country in the economic doldrums, a candidate hailing from a supposedly prosperous state gave the voter the impression that ‘hope’ and ‘change’ were in the offing, to use the empty rhetoric of her rival.
The next morning Wendy is roused from a deep sleep in the back seat of her beat-up old Honda Accord by an elderly security guard who informs her that she is not allowed to park in the lot he monitors. This bit of law enforcement is just the first in a series of confrontations in which Wendy is reminded of how the propertied classes keep the riff-raff in order. Since the car will not start, she is forced to push it from the parking lot with the help of the security guard who gradually becomes something of a guardian angel in the course of the film. We learn that he has become a security guard because there are no other jobs in a town that has seen its mill shut down. We also gather that Wendy has left Muncie, Indiana for about the same reasons. When she calls her sister from a phone booth to get some help in paying for the repair of her car, she is stopped in her tracks by her sister’s advice that “we are strapped here”.
An hour or two later Wendy is caught shoplifting two cans of dog food for Lucy in a nearby supermarket. The police haul her off to jail where she is ordered to pay a fifty dollar fine. When she returns to the supermarket, she discovers that Lucy has disappeared from the post to which she was leashed. The remainder of the film consists of her desperate search for Lucy, made all the more difficult by her poverty. Each morning she washes up in the restroom of a convenience store and tries to get through the day on a donut and a cup of coffee. Taking pity on her, the security guard offers her some cash, which amounts to all of seven dollars. They both occupy a world where life is lived on the margin.
In keeping with the minimalist style of this neorealist breakthrough film, there is no film score. Director Kelly Reichardt, however, has made sure to use sounds dramatically in the film even though no music is involved. From beginning to end, we hear train whistles, the rustling of the leaves in the trees, car traffic–noises that underline Wendy’s aloneness and vulnerability. With the exception of the security guard, there is no community of economic victims to provide aid and solidarity. This, of course, is the main difference between Steinbeck’s era and our own. Today, working people are atomized and tend to seek individual solutions to problems like homelessness and unemployment. As the suffering increases, as virtually everybody from Henry Paulson down to the minimum wage worker believe it will, the only ‘hope’ is that the Wendy’s of the world will unite.
I was deeply affected by “Wendy and Lucy” and found myself caring about the main character as if she was a real person. This is about the most one can expect from any movie and missing routinely from the Hollywood blockbuster of the week. Kelly Reichardt is one of the major talents in independent film-making today. Her “Old Joy”, which I neglected to review, is a character study of two middle-aged men who go for a camping trip in the Pacific Northwest, the same setting for her latest movie. Although I found “Old Joy” deeply moving, I could not have anticipated that the director/writer would be capable of such profound social commentary as “Wendy and Lucy”.
Although Deborah Solomon’s interviews, a weekly feature in the Sunday N.Y. Times Magazine, are designed to mock the interviewees, her most recent exchange with Kelly Reichardt is revealing despite itself. Ultimately, Solomon comes across as a lightweight which of course is what got her the job at the Times to begin with.
N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine, November 30, 2008
Questions for Kelly Reichardt
Interview by DEBORAH SOLOMON
Solomon: Is it fair to call your new film, “Wendy and Lucy” – which tracks a young woman’s dissolution after her beloved mutt goes missing from a supermarket parking lot in suburban Oregon – the anti-”Lassie”?
Reichardt: Well, Lucy doesn’t rescue anyone from a fire or keep a kid from drowning.
Solomon: The film is oddly timely, reminding us of how people on the lower rungs of society are the first to fall off when times get tough. Are you trying to bring a jolt of social realism into American film?
Reichardt: Jon Raymond and I came up with the story post-Katrina, and we did start with this idea: Say you have the gumption to set out and make your life better, but you don’t have the benefit of an education, a nest egg or a family net. Can you really improve your situation?
Solomon: That point is driven home when Wendy calls her sister from a phone booth and the sister excuses herself from the long-distance call after five seconds.
Reichardt: The sister herself is so strapped she can’t be generous. She doesn’t have anything left to give financially or emotionally. She herself is tapped out.
Solomon: We should mention that Wendy is on her way to Ketchikan, Alaska, where she hopes to find work in the fishing canneries.
Reichardt: It was before Sarah Palin.
Solomon: Do you think Palin has ruined Alaska as a symbol of the untrammeled frontier for future filmmakers and novelists?
Reichardt: No. Hopefully, she fades from memory quickly.
“Wendy and Lucy” is scheduled to open in New York City on December 17th. Complete nationwide scheduling information can be found in the movie website.