So Kelly Reichardt has now made two very good, very quiet, very seemingly simple films. Old Joy, the first, is about two old friends who reconnect over a weekend in the woods. Wendy and Lucy is about a down-on-her-luck woman (Michelle Williams) headed for Alaska who stops somewhere in Oregon and loses her dog. Both deal with the kinds of working-class people (and somewhere far below that, in the new film’s case) that you don’t see very often on-screen. A. O. Scott wants to read Wendy and Lucy in light of the current economic crisis, and maybe it is a good film for its time: “underneath this plain narrative surface — or rather, resting on it the way a smooth stone rests in your palm — is a lucid and melancholy inquiry into the current state of American society… “Wendy and Lucy” find[s], in one woman’s partly self-created hard luck, an intimation of more widespread hard times ahead.” But the film doesn’t come across as ‘political’ in any way, and it’s certainly the better for it.
Reichardt doesn’t tell us anything about Wendy’s past. All we know is that she has a car (which dies on her as the film begins) and a dog, Lucy (which disappears when she’s busted for shoplifting). These troubles pose a significant threat to her carefully budgeted attempt to get to Alaska, a place she seems to have settled on because there are purportedly jobs there that will accept the kind of person who doesn’t have a permanent address or a current phone number. Williams is impressive here, carrying long stretches of the film on her own. She’s a wide-eyed drifter who seems very attuned to her surroundings but also forever wary of the dangers of the road and, as the film progresses, consistently worn down by her rapidly failing plans. As viewers, we quite naturally sympathize with Wendy, but Reichardt keeps it unclear whether society has failed her or whether she’s simply given up and dropped out (has she left a family somewhere? we see a baby picture in her wallet at one point). A holier-than-thou shop employee tells Wendy early in the film that “a person who can’t afford dog food shouldn’t own a dog,” a position that she dismisses at the time but one that she seems to interrogate as the film progresses, with an ending that some viewers will see as practical and others an act of willful self-delusion.