Wendy (a grubbed-up Michelle Williams in fine form) is a poor, friendless drifter who has stopped in an anonymous Oregon town, having driven from Indiana on her way to the vague hope of a job in Alaska. One minor calamity after another befalls her: her car won't start, she is arrested after shoplifting some dog food, and her dog Lucy disappears while Wendy is having her time wasted at the local police station.
Bleak but not sadistic, Wendy and Lucy shows us life on the financial edge, where ruin comes one nickel at a time. While it's a short, simple film, I must say that it's stayed with me for a long time afterward.
Most intriguing is Williams's character: Reichardt and cowriter Jonathan Raymond have created a woman who, on the surface, could be any one of us, which is sort of the point. But they – and Williams, who obviously helped develop the character – also feed us many tantalizing, if unanswerable, hints about who Wendy was back in Indiana and what might have happened to her. For example, one can infer that Wendy did a fair bit of shoplifting from Indiana up to Oregon, even though she has hundreds of dollars of cash on her. As the story unfolds, one can't help but wonder what Wendy is running away from, why so many of her ties have been severed, how she got the money she has. Much has been kept secret; Wendy herself is sexless, humorless, and only resourceful enough to be hyper-protective of the cash on her body. She is not living, merely surviving. I couldn't help but put myself in her situation, wondering whether I'd be able to succeed where she failed if I tried to use my own charm, wit, or organizational skills.
The film may test a person's attitude towards the homeless: although the smug Christian teenager who turns Wendy in for shoplifting spells out Reichardt's opinions about who really cares for the poor and who doesn't, her film still leaves it up to each viewer to decide how much they think Wendy has dug her own hole, and how responsible society is for helping her get out of it.
Although Wendy and Lucy is – to a small degree – a message movie about life in a politically and economically polarized America, at its heart it's a character study, and a haunting one at that. I strongly recommend it.