Director Kelly Reichardt has established herself as a keen observer of behavior, preferring extended takes of actorly response to augment her overall goal of profound minimalism. Reichardt is a gifted visual composer and a dream with actors, but a little from this filmmaker goes an awfully long way. "Wendy and Lucy" steps further into Reichardt's cinematic meditation, yet shows her straining to reach lofty emotional goals.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a migrant soul on the move from the Midwest to Oregon, with hopes to make it to Alaska for work and a fresh start. At her side is her dog Lucy, a faithful companion who Wendy adores, but can't always properly take care of due to monetary limitations. When Wendy's car stalls in a small town, it sets off a series of events that separate Wendy from Lucy, leaving the nomadic woman in a panic to find her friend and continue on her way.
Reichardt's last film was the 2006 soul-cleanser "Old Joy," a lusciously photographed, perfectly acted tale of fractured friendship that held the approximate running time of 147 years. Perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, but "Old Joy," as nutritious a piece of art-house cinema as it was, needed a kick in the pants now and again. "Wendy and Lucy" emerges from the same place within Reichardt's soul that feeds on painstaking tales of silent woe.
Led by Michelle Williams and her raw, internalized performance, "Wendy and Lucy" is a deceptively simple story of a friendship put under severe stress, using the backdrop of economic pressure and unsupported wanderlust to commit to the screen a character in constant emotional bondage, contrasting a life lived without regulation. It's a captivating character composition, putting Wendy to the test as she endures the long arm of the law, the cruel certainties of homelessness, and the universal torture of car repair estimates.
Fortunately, it's not all bleak misfortune greeting Wendy. Reichardt is sure to provide some relief to the story in the form of a kindly Walgreens security officer, who takes pity on Wendy as she endures a protracted emotional meltdown. The bright spot is required to process Wendy's ultimate sacrifice, revealing that whatever Reichardt prefers in numbing, contemplative filmmaking tempos, she's eager to remind the viewer how much simple acts of humanity can still crater the heart.
Scored to the gentle sound of Wendy's comforting hum, the picture rides a satisfying adventure of humiliations and distress for the title characters, building to a resonate climax that will surely amplify 1000 times louder to any pet lover.