Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Film Snapshot: Wendy and Lucy

With the minimalist components of a Dardenne Brothers film, Kelly Reichardt's latest film Wendy and Lucy is a lovely, poignant tale about humanity. It's apt that a film shot on location in Portland, OR (yay Oregon!) should also be compared to something like a Raymond Carver short story; minimal effects that have big emotional payoffs. It's not just the emotional pay offs that make this story rewarding (they're subtle, but they're there), but in how the film makes you think and feel and contemplate throughout; much like Carver did with his stark, sometimes patchwork stories; he left it to the reader to scribble in the margins the rest of the story. And so it is with Reichardt's film -- minimalist beauty that rivals Rosetta, Stranger Than Paradise, or other films of that ilk.

The story is simple enough: a woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams) has some car trouble, gets busted for shoplifting in order to feed her dog Lucy, and in the process has to go to the local jail, leaving Lucy tied outside of the store. When she comes back later that night her dog is gone. This isn't merely a journey to find a lost dog, this is the journey to find something deeper that is lost: her identity. We can infer from Wendy's phone call home later in the movie that she has tried to break free from the mundane Indiana lifestyle she was surrounded by and is now trying to make her way to Alaska because "they need people." Here is someone who seems to have been lured by the siren song of the road trip and instead has found that life is tough.

The metaphor is clear for the times we live in now, and there is a moment of true humanity and beauty where a security guard who has kind of befriended Wendy gives her a small amount of money; nothing more than ten dollars of wadded up ones and a five, but it's in the act of giving, not in the amount he gives her that we see a person who would do whatever is feasible, financially speaking, to help a stranger. It's only appropriate that I watched this film on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration speech where he so eloquently spoke of sacrifice and humanity as a nation; the act of reaching out a hand to a stranger in need. For Wendy it's not even a monetary need (as is evident by her pretty-full money belt and diligent record keeping), but it's the fact that she is so far away from home, and although she is not physically lost, just stalled, she is existentially lost, and it is in that exchange of money and humanity that she realizes what she must do.

Her epiphany is a sad one, a decision I dare not reveal, but it drives home the message of sacrifice and not letting things, however big of a fixture they may be, be dragged down with. It reminds me of a great Bright Eyes lyric: "if you love something give it away".

As mentioned above the minimalist effects only make the film better; there are no Hollywood contrivances here, no 'gotcha!' moments -- just truth, seeping out of every aching frame. The lack of soundtrack (aside from Williams humming to herself) works well, and there some shots (like the pic at the beginning of the post) that say it all in a subtle, Dardenne-esque (or Carver-esque) way; making Wendy and Lucy an emotional,non-manipulative film-going experience.

At the center of it all is Michelle Williams with an amazing, heartbreaking performance that will certainly earn her some much deserved Oscar attention. What makes Wendy so appealing is that this is someone we may know ourselves, or someone we may have come across; a normal person who suffers the consequences of fate, but also plays role in how things turn out because of some her actions. Again, this is like Carver in that everything exists in the gray -- the middle ground. I like films that aren't afraid to dwell in that gray area, that allow the audience to come to their own conclusions and elicit their own metaphors throughout the film and long after -- because any good film has a lasting effect, a hangover that will have you thinking about it days afterward.

I recently wrote about how I wished Revolutionary Road would have benefited from being less heavy-handed with its metaphors; well here is Kelly Reichardt doing just what I was hoping Sam Mendes would have done by creating an understated drama that doesn't spell everything out for you in Oscar-bait moment after Oscar-bait moment. This is quite the film.


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