Kelly Reichardt’s quiet, devastating film is a character study with social resonance that requires very few words to deliver its story and its critique. Little dialogue intrudes as the Reichardt, who directed and edited, notes the most prosaic moments of an ordinary life and somehow turns them into a sad comment on what it means to be poor and female and trying to live with very few choices available to make it all work.

Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) sleeps in her car with her dog, Lucy. She’s traveling fromMuncie, Indiana, to Ketchikan, Alaska, to look for work at the Northwestern Fisheries cannery that she’s heard pays well and comes with room and board. Wendy is deliberate, calm, and careful. She traces out her route on her wrinkled map with a yellow highlighter and writes down each of her expenses as she accounts for her rapidly diminishing financial reserves. Wendy is also young; flowery doodles illustrate her record-keeping in her spiral notebook.

But the young woman’s admirable resourcefulness is clear. When she encounters groups of other people traveling together, she’s wary and watchful, gleaning information but revealing nothing. She’s steeled herself for this trip, wearing a money belt Velcro-ed around her waist and carrying her belongings in the trunk of her car.

When her old car breaks down, Wendy’s fortunes begin to down shift even further. A gentle, middle-aged night watchman guarding the empty Walgreen’s lot where Wendy parks overnight in a small town in Oregon wakes her to force her to move the car. When she turns the ignition, it won’t start, so she and the guard push it to the curb, where Wendy waits for daylight and for the garage across the street to open.

She finds the last crumbs of dog food stashed in the trunk for Lucy, who laps them up gratefully but clearly wants more. In fact, Wendy’s sense of responsibility for her dog propels her through the film even more than her desire to get where she can find work that will let them both survive. Lucy is her only companion; Wendy’s love for her sustains them both. The mixed-breed dog is valiant and faithful, thrilled to chase the sticks Wendy throws and patient as Wendy goes about her human tasks.

Her determination to care for Lucy gets Wendy into the jam that slowly unravels her precarious mobile stability. As she waits for her car to be fixed, Wendy trolls the aisles at a local market, carefully shoplifting. She pockets a bread roll for herself and later, when she’s busted on her way out of the store by Andy (John Robinson), a sanctimonious young grocery clerk, he pulls two cans of Iams dog food from her bag. Her choice of premium canned food makes the risk she’s taken that much more touching, and her capture that much more pathetic.

When Andy presents Wendy’s theft to his boss, Reichardt stages a scene that demonstrates the sticky complications of being poor and the levels of righteousness that distinguish people’s places on the economic ladder. Andy—who’s young enough to be picked up after work by his station wagon-driving mother—implores his reluctant boss to follow procedure and call the police. Andy insists that anyone who can’t afford dog food shouldn’t own a dog, emphasizing that if they make an exception for Wendy, their shoplifting prohibition is meaningless.

The boss, looking small behind his desk, wavers. He’s clearly embarrassed by the situation but lets Andy bully him into calling the police. As she’s driven off, Wendy explains that her dog is tied up outside the store. The cop doesn’t care. Through the rear-view window, Reichardt frames Lucy waiting on her leash, looking into the grocery store as Wendy is taken away and booked.

Williams’ performance as Wendy is so understated and true that she barely lets her irritation register on her face, even as she withstands the ineptitude of the young officer who books her and has to consult the manual to work the station’s computerized fingerprinting machine. You can see from the clench of Williams’ jaw and her surreptitious glances at the police station clock that she’s anxious to return to Lucy, but Wendy is a woman practiced at hiding her needs and her feelings.

The young white officer and the older African American woman who process her aren’t particularly nasty. Reichardt clarifies in simple strokes that no one individual is responsible for how the law or the economy binds and controls and constrains each of them differently.None of them band together to change anything, but they each suffer how things are from within their own proscribed roles, adhering to the rules of a game none of them have devised. No animosity flows between people in Wendy and Lucy, just a general resignation with the fact that everyone’s doing the best they can.

Only the security guard (Walter Dalton) breaks through proscription to reach out to Wendy.His job requires him to make her leave the Walgreen’s lot, but the guard can’t help but talk to her and try to help her out. He tells her about a nice, clean hotel not far from the store and describes the way to the pound when Lucy is lost. He clearly comes to care about her, even though they know nothing about one another.

In one of the film’s many small, finely wrought and poignant moments, the security guard comes to find Wendy in the lot on his day off, and passes her some money on the quiet, as the woman waiting for him in his car fixes her make-up. “I don’t want her to know about it,” the security guard explains, insisting Wendy not refuse his gift. When he drives away, Wendy looks down at the cash in her hand and counts out a five dollar bill and a few singles. The man has little more than Wendy, but he’s rich with humanity.

After she’s arrested for shoplifting, pays a $50 fine for her misdemeanor that she can’t afford, and is released, Wendy runs back to the grocery store. Lucy isn’t there, and no one knows where the dog has gone. The security guard suggests the pound and Wendy trudges off to look there for Lucy. The clerk at the animal shelter is kind, but Wendy’s sad tour through the kennels doesn’t turn up her dog. Instead, the camera tracks Wendy walking past other caged and desperate creatures, some barking hopefully at the bars of their cages, others retreated into the inner chambers of their small spaces, peering out warily and without hope.

The parallel is clear—at least the dogs get food, water, and a roof over their heads as they wait out their fates, some with hope and determination, and others with sorrowful acceptance. Wendy stays one step ahead of homelessness. She washes herself in a gas station restroom, trying to maintain her dignity in the face of her increasing deprivation. But losing Lucy means doing without her lifeline. Wendy’s car, which proves much more expensive to fix than she can afford, is easier to abandon. But life without her dog is too lonely to bear.

Wendy and Lucy’s script—based on the short story “Train Choir” by Jon Raymond—is never predictable and never sentimental. The film doesn’t ask the spectator to pity the characters, but to see them instead as human beings struggling with whatever limited means they can muster, each in his or her own way. The world Wendy and Lucy paints isn’t easy or kind—it’s lonely, hard, and sad, with little to remediate the economic blight and emotional benightedness the film depicts unremittingly.

But the elegant photography and eloquent editing—and Williams’ impressive, powerful acting—tell a sympathetic story about the people it depicts, not as a mess of psychological trouble and relational woe, but as individuals grinding out the only lives they can, given the poverty of their class and the paucity of possibility provided by the shopworn American dream.

The Feminist Spectator

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