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MOVIE REVIEW

Wendy and Lucy

Down on her luck and lost in America

Michelle Williams stars as Wendy, a woman on a cross-country trip with her dog, in ''Wendy and Lucy.'' Michelle Williams stars as Wendy, a woman on a cross-country trip with her dog, in ''Wendy and Lucy.''
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 23, 2009
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While Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway are fighting each other for the perfect wedding in "Bride Wars," and several anonymous horror-movie starlets are running from evil wearing only their undies, Michelle Williams shows us crisis by crouching in a ball and merely pressing her palms into her forehead. This doesn't sound like much, but given the woeful lack of inner life for young women in American movies, Williams's single gesture of fatigue and partial defeat in "Wendy and Lucy" is momentous.

Wendy Carroll is a character we rarely see in movies anymore, a woman left alone with her thoughts. That a moviegoer would care what she's thinking testifies to the power in Williams's brand of solitude. It's laced with worry. Our involvement also points to the virtues of the movie's observational style. We're shown more than we're told about Wendy, who wears a pair of shorts and a zip-up hoodie, and whose hair is cut into a plain bob. The spare proportions of Kelly Reichardt's second film (her first was 2006's "Old Joy") are nearly perfect. Her gift as a filmmaker is for taking snapshots of relationships and people in transition or transit.

In "Old Joy," two estranged buddies take a drive to a hot springs. "Wendy and Lucy" is a road trip run aground. Wendy had been driving from Indiana to Alaska with Lucy, her dog. But after her 20-year-old Honda Accord won't start, she finds herself stuck in Portland, Ore., running out of money. The movie follows the unlucky day or so she spends trying to figure what to do next. Get the car fixed. Feed Lucy. Make better decisions than stealing a can of dog food from a supermarket. But Wendy is desperate. Or at least she thinks she is. Consequently, she's caught, arrested, and separated from Lucy long enough for the dog to go missing in her absence.

Some writers have noted that Wendy's predicament strains credibility. She could have just placed a Craigslist ad for a ride-share to Alaska. She could have flown. She could have paid for a can of Alpo (we see she's got a couple hundred dollars to work with). But Reichardt is reconsidering what it means to live a modern American life. Presumably by her own choice, Wendy is disconnected from consumer society - she has no credit card and no cellphone. She sits and thinks on the hood of her car outside a Walgreens but never goes in. Can she continue to survive this way: on the fringe?

It's worked for so many Gus Van Sant characters. I waited in vain for Wendy to wander into Van Sant's Portland, to find a haven amid his drifters and outcasts. But in addition to being more artistically pragmatic than Van Sant, Reichardt, who wrote "Wendy and Lucy" with Jonathan Raymond, is also more pensive. Both "Old Joy" and "Wendy" contemplate the limits of idealism. Wendy is a good, earnest person afflicted with bad luck. She's also a touch naïve - but never falsely so. People like Wendy have stopped me on the street and tried to solicit Sierra Club donations.

Watching Wendy haplessly search for her dog and befriend the kind old Walgreens security officer (Walter Dalton), I actually thought about Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" and Poppy, the movie's unsinkably upbeat protagonist. Wendy retreats inward. Poppy is an extrovert. Both movies are modern fables that use their heroines' lack of cynicism to reach movingly different conclusions about goodness. For Leigh, it actually can brighten the world. Reichardt isn't entirely convinced. You need common sense, too.

Reichardt's realist view (in her case, of the American West) demonstrates everything that's right with independent filmmaking in this country. She works without compromise and without varnish or overstatement, as well. Her movies have yet to make it past the 80-minute mark, so they risk being dismissed as slight. But the small scale and small action belie larger ideas. She makes movies whose intimacy and epiphanies are the stuff of very good short fiction.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

WENDY AND LUCY

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt

Written by: Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond

Starring: Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton, and Will Patton

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 80 minutes

Rated: R (language)

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