Wearing a blue hoodie, pants cut off at the knee and tan sneakers, Wendy Carroll is on the run from her own sad life. In her 20s and alone, she pulls into a drizzly Oregon town, has car problems, gets into trouble with the law and then loses her dog, Lucy.
That's about the sum of what happens in Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy," except to say that somehow, thanks to an extraordinary performance from Michelle Williams and an exceptionally deft hand from her director, this low-budget and loping little film is a genuine heartbreaker.
A meditation on loneliness and an unsentimental -- and scarily timely -- examination of the thin divide between those with jobs and homes and those without, "Wendy and Lucy" has a quiet resonance that fans of Reichardt's "Old Joy" will recognize.
But where the filmmaker's 2006 pic about two old pals taking a hike in the woods (same backdrop, the Pacific Northwest) examined the bonds of friendship through a stoner haze, "Wendy and Lucy" describes the desperate solitude of a woman whose emotions are clamped down tight and whose one real friend is her rangy mutt. Disconnected from her family, Wendy has a plan of sorts to find work in a fishing cannery in Alaska, but doesn't have much purpose beyond that.
Grainy and quiet, "Wendy and Lucy" is a real-world "Marley & Me." It's set in a world that has nothing to do with Hollywood or showcase houses or trained canines that deliver cute on command.
It also has nothing to do with celebrities. There isn't a moment in "Marley & Me" where you can forget that its stars are perennial celebrity-magazine faves Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson. There isn't a moment in "Wendy and Lucy" when it even occurs to you to think of Williams as the sad-eyed mom of the late Heath Ledger's child. The actress completely loses herself in the role and does so in ways that are delicate and reserved.
There's a pivotal scene with Williams' character curled up in a sleeping bag in a park when a menacing figure approaches. Reichardt closes in on Williams' face, and the look of fear and defenselessness and aching aloneness is staggering.
"Wendy and Lucy" was written by Reichardt with Jon Raymond, who adapted his story "Train Choir," and the film has the telling details, the seemingly ordinary exchanges, of a great short story. It's also Williams' movie through and through, and she gives one of the strongest performances by an actress in 2008, Oscar nomination or not.
"Wendy and Lucy" is modest and minimalist, but it reverberates like a sonic boom. michelleingridwilliams.com