[In the L's Holiday Gift Guide Issue, we presented a Holiday Film Preview of sorts: Reviews of Movies We Haven't Seen, probably the most vibrant and opinionated preview we've ever run — banking on the predictability of the holiday-movie industrial complex, and also our own tendency to review movies before seeing them. So let's see how we did. Here, I, who wrote the one on Wendy and Lucy — now playing at Film Forum — compare my preview to my actual response.]
Further travels through rural bohemia from the Old Joy director, who here casts a camera-shy Michelle Williams as a girl (with her dog) whose car breaks down on the road to nowhere. Naturalism: elliptical, process-oriented scenes are punctuated by ambient-sounding Pacific Northwestern beauty. Reichardt restores the existential purity to hand-to-mouth living.
It’s true, as the L’s Michael Rowin implies in his review, that Michelle Williams looks a little more put-together than the more typical gutter trash and vagabonds she encounters at a train yard campfire early on, but for me it works, making her seem even more of a world apart.
It’s hardly going out on a limb to predict that a Reichardt movie would make a mostly uninflected movie; the unassuming sound design does, in fact, make this already introverted story quite intimate — this is a movie about a woman who can fit everything she owns inside a Honda hatchback, and often Reichardt’s camera is in there with her. The movie is traveling light and self-sufficient. Even the beauty of the scenery is unexpected — it’s less the purity of nature than the unadorned truth of small-city municipal buildings, parking lots, half-developed streets.
But I underestimated the extent to which this really ends up being a story of a lost dog — Wendy’s search for Lucy dominates the movie, making the mechanics of off-the-grid life in America sort of incidental to a distinct emotional arc. Kristin M. Jones, in the current Film Comment, and Dennis Lim, Cinema-Scope‘s Cannes issue, have written great, scope-widening pieces on the film, but for me Wendy and Lucy is less an expandable existential text than a pretty forefronted drama.
That said, given the movie’s engagement with its milieu and quiet grace, Wendy and Lucy works as maybe the loveliest, least manipulative tearjerker you’re likely to see released in December. It’s not that we don’t want to like Marley & Me — it’s just that those’re the kinds of movies that wring a response out of us and leave us feeling used.
Despite its indie-folk trappings, Wendy and Lucy is, I’m guessing, probably closer to Marley & Me than In the City of Sylvia — but those film-fest-minimalist chops are exactly what make Reichardt so good at making a girl-and-her-dog story.