Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Film Review #189: Wendy and Lucy
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Willliams, Walter Dalton, Larry Fessenden

Not too far into Kelly Reichardt’s latest road trip film, Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams), the slight, dark-haired drifter in cut-offs and hoodie, has been dragged into the manager’s office at Jack’s Market for stealing a roll and a can of I AM’s dog food. You can tell the manager would like to let this go.

"Well," he says with a sigh to his zealous clerk, "what are we talking here?"

But Andy (John Robinson), the blond teen-ager who’s "watched the whole thing," his face red and blotchy with indignation, the gold cross at his throat flashing, insists it’s not the money, it’s about setting an example.

"I’m not from around here," says Wendy quickly, sensing an opening that diffident apologies had not provided. "I can’t be an example."

The part about not being "from around here" is a line Wendy uses often, until it comes to resemble a song’s refrain. She’d used it the night before, chatting with another woman who asked her where the local store was, when searching for her dog Lucy led her to the campfire of some "gutter punks" by the railroad. (These are homeless teens who travel by hopping trains; the extras for this scene were hired from a camp near Portland’s rail-yards.) She’d used it that morning when the Walgreen’s security guard (Walter Dalton) wakes her up and says she can’t sleep in the parking lot and must move her car. It echoes as "just passing through" when she pays her shop-lifting fine and again when she gives her sister in Muncie’s address at the dog pound. Later Bill the car mechanic (Will Patton) will bounce the line back to her – "You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?" – and the security guard will sympathetically lament that "you can’t get a job without an address – it’s all fixed!"

Wendy and Lucy covers roughly three days during which Wendy Carroll’s already frayed and tattered life comes apart. Having set out in an ’88 Honda Accord from Great Bend, Indiana, she lands in Wilsonville, Oregon, an equally frayed and tattered former mill town just outside Portland along the railroad north. With $525 left, she’s heading for Alaska and a job in the fish canneries. In Salt Lake City, a guy had told her the car’s serpentine belt was going, but now the head gasket goes too. While occupied with the receiving end of setting an example for local scoff-laws, Wendy loses Lucy to the dog-catcher.

In the end, though Wendy finds Lucy lazing happily in the yard of a "foster" volunteer from the pound, she goes on alone, hopping a train into the chilly twilight. I have watched this film three times now since the awards season screener arrived in my mailbox in late November; knowing the end doesn’t prevent seeing it freshly each time. This time through, though it’s been called "serene" and is considerably softer than Michael Haneke’s 2003 Time of the Wolf, I couldn’t help thinking of his train rumbling through another ominous landscape.

After its premier last May at Cannes followed by some other top fests, Wendy and Lucy screened theatrically on the two coasts in December just long enough to qualify for Oscar nominations, and didn’t make it, despite other critical praise and some top ten lists. Regular theatrical release, starting in January, is now steadily underway, with bookings through the end of May.

Reichardt, who lives most of the year in Queens with Lucy, made this film in August 2007 for about $300,000. Michelle Williams worked for free and refrained from showers for the length of the 18-day shoot. Reichardt co-wrote the script with Portland author Jon Raymond, based on his story "Train Choir." Reichardt and Raymond got the idea from public discussion after Hurricane Katrina and the question of what we owe one another, but this theme is no less ingrained in the Pacific Northwest. While Lucy is still lost, Wendy sits in a diner making flyers to post as the camera pans past another patron reading Ken Kesey's saga of the Stamper logging family's fight against the unions, Sometimes a Great Notion.

Recently interviewed on NPR’s "Fresh Air," Reichardt said she used trains in place of music –"the sounds of commerce as a score" – except for the tune that Wendy hums (echoed in the closing credits and written by musician-actor Will Oldham, who plays the gutter punk Icky). This use of train sound climaxes in one brief terrifying night scene when Wendy crosses paths with a man in the woods (Larry Fessenden, in one of the film’s many performance gems).

Reichardt and Raymond worked together on Old Joy (2006) and have another feature underway with the working title Meek’s Cut-off, a Western "from a feminine perspective" set in 1845 Oregon, making a trilogy that Reichardt says explores the American dream. Most strangers Wendy encounters are decent, courteous folk. Some are generous – inch by inch, the security guard befriends her and this mechanic plays against type – but it only takes one Andy.

This review appears in the March 5 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. See Wendy and Lucy at Manlius Cinema for one week starting March 6. Watch the trailer at Wendy and Lucy opens in 17 other cities, including Ithaca, this week, and comes out on DVD in May. To read Nancy’s review of Old Joy on this site, click on 2007 in Archives and go to May.