Wendy and Lucy

Upon its early limited release last year, director Kelly Reichardt’s recession-prescient third feature seemed poised for award recognition, in the category of What Bush Hath Wrought. But now the Hope administration officially has begun, and Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt’s eloquently reticent parable of lower-middle-class skid-hitting, has spread into the heartland. Now is when it gets interesting.

Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a young drifter en route to Alaska, whose aging Honda craps out in suburban Oregon just as she runs out of food for Lucy, her dog. Under Wendy’s particular circumstances, this amounts to a catastrophe. We learn from a page in her margin-doodled spiral notebook that her voyage began in Indiana, and that her budget began at less than low. She can’t afford to fix the car. She can’t even afford the dog food, so she steals some from a grocery store instead. And she gets caught.

“The rules apply to everyone equally,” Wendy’s apprehender, a zealous store clerk of about her own age, reminds his boss. “If a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog.” That idea is what the movie is here to examine. And it gets right to it; while Wendy goes to pay her fine, which of course she can’t afford, Lucy goes missing. As if being stranded and destitute and pitied by an old rent-a-cop (Wally Dalton) and jerked around by the local mechanic (Will Patton) weren’t enough. Now, without her only friend, Wendy might as well just completely disappear herself.

Adapted from Jon Raymond’s short story by Raymond and the director, Wendy and Lucy is one of those movies whose way of fortifying the protagonist’s dignity is through the scouring thereof. This sort of austere, elliptical portrait of the downtrodden owes much to the Italian neorealism made internationally famous by scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio Di Sica after World War II. Here again we have survival as a function of vehicular mobility, as in Zavattini and Di Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and humanity as a function of animal companionship, canine in particular, as in their Umberto D. Reichardt and Raymond’s gloomily fertile modern-day Pacific Northwest may seem far away from postwar Europe, but some forms of malaise are universal and perpetual.

With naturalism and stillness evidently among her highest priorities, Reichardt remains careful to subdue her movie’s political blandishments. Well, OK, maybe it qualifies as too much information that before we even see the face of that kid who busted Wendy for shoplifting, we see the gleaming crucifix around his neck — and later, the gleaming Volvo station wagon that picks him up from work. But then there’s that security guard, whose ride to work is an old Ford sedan, for what it’s worth, and whose pity evolves so unaffectedly into a moving display of compassion.

As for Wendy, she looks as twiggy and glamourless as Williams possibly can, having sunken herself into hoodie, cutoffs, scuffed Pumas, and, under a blunt and presumably self-applied haircut, the sour fortitude of her often down-turned mouth. Yes, that’s pretty much the epitome of thrift-store chic, and it’s difficult to tell how much of Wendy’s whole nouveau-hobo routine actually is only a pose. But the difficulty is the beauty of Williams’ performance, and of the film. We learn from one guardedly desperate phone call that there’s some trouble between Wendy and the remnants of family she left behind, but the scene won’t declare many specifics beyond a very real-seeming whiff of mutual exasperation. For all we actually know, her motive might only be pride. Maybe that possible cannery gig in Alaska was just Wendy’s answer when someone dared her to finally get a summer job. Maybe her real destination is anywhere far away from the shame of retreating home, broken-willed, to a hearty trust fund. Maybe.

It’s not immaterial, what we learn from our bonds with beloved pets: among other things, the discernment of responsibility from innocent loyalty. Thing is, even if Wendy did only pose her way into her situation, it’s serious. And that’s how we know Wendy and Lucy really is a movie for our time.