Film Review: Wendy and Lucy

Michelle Williams memorably radiates an authentic, embattled humanity in Kelly Reichardt’s tale of a girl and her dog.
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Throughout Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, I kept thinking of Vittorio De Sica’s great Umberto D. Although it can be in no way classified as equal to that neorealist masterwork, Reichardt’s film does share with it a certain purity of intent, as well as a poverty-stricken protagonist (Michelle Williams here, as Wendy) just trying to get through the dreary, ever-challenging days and, above all, the utterly disarming love of a dog (here, the adorable heartbreaker, Lucy).

The late Heath Ledger has been praised (overly so, I think) for his performance in The Dark Knight, but here, his erstwhile life partner Williams gives a better performance in an equally, if not more, challenging role. Although Reichardt’s screenplay is meager on Wendy’s backstory—a too-easy weakness in the name of a kind of “telling minimalism,” all we know is she doesn’t get along with her family and is making her way from Indiana to a hoped-for job in some Alaskan fishing cannery—or the reasons as to exactly how she wound up so very down-and-out, Williams’ total conviction and honesty rather fill in a lot of blanks and keep you watching and interested in this probably very wrong-headed girl.

Wendy is just as misunderstood as the character Anne Hathaway plays in Rachel Getting Married, but where Hathaway projected troubled alienation to the very rafters of the theatre, Williams, with the most economic of means, wins your complete empathy, something which that showier performance simply fails to do. Rich Hollywood actresses love playing skid-row types, reduced to shoplifting and always excruciatingly getting caught for their pains; the difference here is that, with a profound understanding in someone so young, Williams doesn’t play it, she is it. There’s not a lot of dialogue, so most of Wendy’s feelings are projected through Williams’ face and body language. It’s a modern equivalent of silent-movie acting and, in its utter humanity and emotional authenticity, this performance, in its modest way, is in a direct line from Falconetti’s transcendent Joan of Arc.

Aside from Williams, the film isn’t really much, but Reichardt definitely shows her skill with her probing, fluid camerawork, strong sense of setting, and formidable people skills in the small, telling encounters Wendy has with a kindly security guard (Wally Dalton) and an obnoxious store clerk. And, yes, that is the director’s dog, used again as she was in Old Joy, providing some of the most heart-rending moments in this film which is highly recommended to all abject dog lovers.