Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy And Lucy” (2008)

Notable Festivals: Cannes

When the Great Recession arrived in mid-2008, very few people outside of the financial sector saw it coming.  Naturally, it was the middle and lower-class factions that bore the brunt of the damage, their jobs and life savings having evaporated away overnight while wealthy corporations received generous government bailouts.  Jobs, homes, and dreams were lost as the runaway economic progress of the Bush years revealed itself to be fundamentally hollow, propped up by a mountain of financial speculation made in bad faith. Despite losing my first job out of college before I could build up any savings, I was able to still weather the storm thanks to parents who were in a position to support me until I was back on my feet.  Most were not so lucky, faced with the sobering prospect of being the first American generation to be worse off than the one that came before it. Many learned a hard truth that the lower middle-class already knew quite well: poverty isn’t just an economic status, it’s a precarious state of being where a series of small inconveniences can trigger a full-stop catastrophe.

It’s often said that art reflects life— a sentiment that handily applies to director Kelly Reichardt’s WENDY AND LUCY, which dropped right into this uncertain economic atmosphere with its chilling reflection of our quiet calamities.  Based on Jonathan Raymond’s short story “Train Choir”, WENDY AND LUCY carries a surprising amount of dramatic weight on its delicate narrative frame, transforming a sketch about a drifter’s search for her lost dog into a resonant meditation on street-level capitalism and the social compacts that guide our lives.  Reichardt follows a similar template to the production of OLD JOY, shooting in Portland with executive producer Todd Haynes and Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix, in addition to her recurring collaboration with producers Neil Kopp and Anish Savjani.  Nevertheless, WENDY AND LUCY’s production marks a substantial leap forward for Reichardt, boasting the support of additional production company Filmscience as well as a $200,000 budget that blows OLD JOY’s $30,000 endowment clear out of the water.  While still a relatively paltry number in the context of even the most low-budget studio film, $200,000 nevertheless compounds Reichardt’s artistic cred to a degree where she’s able to cast her first “name” actor in Michelle Williams.  

In the first of several subsequent performances throughout Reichardt’s filmography, Williams imbues the titular character of Wendy with a scrappy, desperate pathos and an androgynous appearance that serves to further highlight her marginalized position on society’s fringes.  A drifter from Indiana on her way to Alaska in hopes of work, Wendy hits a major roadblock in her journey somewhere on Portland’s outer fridges, where the city starts to bleed into the smaller surrounding towns. Her only companion is her dog, Lucy, played by Reichardt’s real-life pet of the same name (and all-around good girl).  Together, they make the best of a bad situation after Wendy’s beater of a sedan suddenly dies on her, effectively stranding them in an unfamiliar land with a meager supply of cash that dwindles by the hour. In giving the entirety of herself over to Reichardt’s vision — to the point that she even slept in her character’s car as part of her preparation — Williams delivers an authentic, well-worn performance that pulls its nuance from her grief over the sudden death of her partner, Heath Ledger earlier that year (1).  With her grungy cut-off shorts, unassuming blue hoodie and boyish dark haircut, Williams is practically unrecognizable, to the point that bystanders would completely ignore her when they came up to talk to the crew (1). She bears the burden of carrying the entire film on her shoulders, as the story is told so singularly from her point of view that we never leave it.

Supporting characters serve as avatars for the various ways in which people either help or hurt a stranger in need.  Will Oldham’s hipster nomad or Will Patton’s cold-but-fair mechanic showcase a pragmatic empathy while still keeping Wendy at arm’s distance.  John Robinson, who we haven’t seen much of since his breakout performance in Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT (2002), uses his character as an aggressive bagboy who busts Wendy shoplifting to display our easy tendency to dehumanize strangers, especially when they can be viewed to belong to a lower economic class than us (it’s no accident that a huge cross dangles from his neck… an ironic sigil of his distinctly un-Christian lack of compassion).  Fessenden cameos in WENDY AND LUCY’s scariest sequence: a genuinely terrifying encounter in which Wendy camps out in the woods only to wake up with a menacing man standing over her and delivering a profanity-laced monologue.  His character represents the gravest danger of Wendy’s situation: the unpredictable and hostile forces that share her marginalization. Beyond her trusty Lucy, Wendy’s only friend in this intimidating new place is Wally Dalton’s security guard, a kindly, paternal man who should be sitting on a porch somewhere in blissful retirement, but must stand on his feet all day guarding the parking lot of an exurban Walgreens.  Despite a contentious first encounter, he becomes an unlikely beacon of comfort for Wendy as her situation grows more dire; he’s always around to offer a helpful tip, or even slip her a little cash like he does at the end of the film.  The fact that it’s only five or six dollars speaks volumes about his own empty wallet; he pushes the cash on Wendy with a gentle force that implies this gift is not to be taken lightly because it’s a lot of money to him.

With OLD JOY, Reichardt debuted a formal — albeit minimalist — aesthetic, one whose seeds were evident in RIVER OF GRASS but took many years to take root, let alone blossom.  WENDY AND LUCY builds upon that foundation, perfecting the earthy, organic look that has come to define her subsequent work.  Working for the first time with cinematographer Sam Levy, Reichardt shoots the picture on Super 16mm film to create a soft & grainy realism.  A preference for natural light gives WENDY AND LUCY a warm, sunny aura that runs counter to the dim grey that blankets Portland’s skies ten months out of the year.  It’s a very different story at night, where bastard-amber streetlamps and flickering fluorescent tubes smear Wendy’s surroundings into a lurid industrial nightmarescape.  Reichardt and Levy frequently opt for locking off their 1.85:1 compositions, creating an observational aesthetic that’s amplified by placing various abstractions in the foreground of the shot.  The effect is furtive, or inconspicuous; like watching something we’re not supposed to see. Dolly-based tracking shots or handheld moves are reserved for key moments, making their arrival all the more impactful and underscoring Wendy’s increasing desperation.  Reichardt once again serves as her own editor, opting for the patient, contemplative pace that marked OLD JOY.  Interestingly, Reichardt as editor takes the opportunity of WENDY AND LUCY to make a drastic adjustment to one of her artistic signatures, using frequent closeup cutaways to the surrounding environment— but not to highlight the beauty of nature, as her previous films did.  Instead, these shots of train tracks, intimidating freeways, and sprawling parking lots suggest the oppressiveness of industry when experienced at eye level.  WENDY AND LUCY also eschews her previous work’s use for music, save for an uneasy tune that Wendy frequently hums to herself throughout.  By abstaining from a conventional overscore, Reichardt reinforces the harrowing realism of her approach with a natural dramatic urgency.  By not instructing her audience how to feel about Wendy’s journey through musical prompts, Reichardt manages to capture our genuine sympathies and concern, stoking further reflection on our own sense of responsibility towards our fellow person— stranger or otherwise.

WENDY AND LUCY resonates as one of Reichardt’s best works precisely because of its harmony with the director’s artistic and narrative interests.  Wendy is the archetypical Reichardt protagonist: a life lived on the fringes of mainstream society, marginalized by her environment.  She belongs to the working poor, perhaps one of the most invisible castes in American society. She straddles the razor-thin line between lower-middle-class comfort and outright homelessness, tracking every single penny that comes in or goes out while she sleeps in an old car that’s one engine light away from the scrap heap.  And yet, one wouldn’t know it to look at her— she could easily pass as just another young person happily playing with her dog in the park. Her economic invisibility cloak is precisely why she’s stuck in a dangerous position, her independence undermined by a sudden reliance on the kindness of strangers. Lucy is her only tether to society, keeping her grounded and visible.  Once that’s gone, she’s a ghost— and ghosts can be easily ignored.

The downward trajectory of Wendy’s journey strikes to the core theme in Reichardt’s work to date: the constant clash between the everyday realities of blue-collar, working-class Americana and the romantic aura of gritty, up-by-your-bootstraps, frontier-trailblazing myth frequently ascribed to them (often at their own peril).  Reichardt’s characters find themselves under immense pressure to conform to this narrative, which has always been a false, impossible one spun less by their own kind and more by patronizing politicians who have no further use for them after their votes have been counted and the election night confetti has been swept away. WENDY AND LUCY stands as a quiet, yet forceful comment to two aspects of this broken myth, the first being that stubborn old chestnut that says America is a land of endless opportunity where one can always reinvent oneself in another town or city.  However, real life bears out a pathetic irony: those most in need of self-reinvention are often the least able to relocate or escape. The only thing that pushes Wendy through a series of mounting economic misfortunes is the promise of plentiful work in Alaska.  This, of course, is it’s own unique myth— the golden glow of a faraway promised land waiting to receive economic refugees as a reward for the harrowing journey they must undertake to get there. This is the foundational promise of America itself, fueling immigrants across endless oceans or covered wagon convoys across bone-dry deserts.  Naturally, these people found a whole new set of problems when they finally arrived— and there’s no reason to believe anything else is waiting for Wendy up in Alaska. The second truth that Reichardt seeks to illuminate lies in Dalton’s kindly security guard character. He’s of the hearty, working-class stock one might expect to see watching over a Walgreen’s parking lot, but thanks to his age, he’s certainly in no shape to chase after any shoplifters.  Reichardt’s decision to cast the character as a grandfatherly benefactor allows Wendy a brief respite from the ambient hostility of her situation, but his presence as such implies a darker socioeconomic truth: runaway inequality has made retirement and financial security increasingly more uncertain for the middle class, even if they’ve been steadily working for decades.

With its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, WENDY AND LUCY marks Reichardt’s entrance onto the world stage as a filmmaker of international renown.  The film’s warm reception earned Reichardt a nomination for the Un Certain Regard award, while Lucy won the festival’s unofficial fan-favorite prize, the Palm Dog.  Thanks to a smart distribution strategy on the part of Oscilloscope, WENDY AND LUCY sustained that golden Cannes glow through its theatrical run, earning near-universal praise from critics and Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Feature and Best Female Lead.  Crucially, the film also saw healthy financial success at the box office— no small feat considering its limited engagement at scattered arthouse theaters. A worldwide gross of $1.1 million — against a production budget of $200,000 — would not only make a powerful statement about the benefits of economic, back-to-basics filmmaking, but it would also prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Reichardt had a sizable, active audience following her work.  

So many new filmmakers deliver brilliant, promising films, only to fizzle out because their audience was too small to sustain, but the success with WENDY AND LUCY virtually eliminated that problem for Reichardt.  It had taken fourteen years, but Reichardt finally achieved a platform for herself upon which to grow her career in the direction she deemed fit.  This is hard enough to do as a man in the studio world, let alone a woman in the independent one— and she did it without caving to style trends or adapting a property with a built-in audience.  Simply put, Reichardt’s success is 100% hers; a testament to her DIY fortitude as well as an inspiration to countless up-and-coming filmmakers looking to blaze their own trails.

WENDY AND LUCY is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Oscilloscope

Credits:

Written by: Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond

Produced by: Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani

Director of Photographer: Sam Levy

Production Designer: Ryan Smith

Edited by: Kelly Reichardt

References:

  • IMDB Trivia Page