Friday, March 6, 2009

The story of a girl and her dog

"Wendy and Lucy," released in New York and Los Angeles last year, is a slender, minimalist movie that many critics have embraced, perhaps because of its very smallness. It's set in a backwater town in Oregon. It's not overburdened with plot, and it inches its way toward the slimmest of resolutions.

On top of that, "Wendy and Lucy" features a performance that seems so totally in the moment, it's difficult to believe you're not watching a real person. Michelle Williams -- a gifted if undemonstrative actress -- plays Wendy, a young woman whose journey to Alaska is interrupted by a series of debilitating setbacks.

As a fan of modest movies, I respected what I thought director Kelly Reichardt was trying to accomplish, yet I still found the movie dull and undernourished -- although definitely in ways that hint at something more profound, a cinema of complete ordinariness, of immersion achieved less through a belief in dramatic enhancement than through a commitment to narrow-gauged realism.

It's difficult to simplify a movie as simple as "Wendy and Lucy," but you should know that Reichardt doesn't so much tell a story as take us into Wendy's drifting world. Wendy's life has been reduced to a series of mishaps. Her aging Honda breaks down. She shoplifts. She's arrested. She loses her dog. She's released from jail. She searches for her dog. There's not much more. When she's walking around, Wendy tends to hum to herself, a self-generated soundtrack for an unbearably modest life.

The idea, one supposes, is that Wendy -- she says she's bound for Alaska -- either is running toward something or running away from something. Wendy's dog, Lucy, provides her only emotional stability. As the movie unfolds, Wendy interacts with a few of the people she meets as she tries to get her car repaired and locate her lost dog. At one point, Wendy visits the pound where she views lost, unwanted animals, hoping that one of them will be Lucy. Very sad.

Reichardt ("Old Joy") seems fascinated by a character who, in my view, earns our sympathy for the most conventional of reasons: Wendy -- who doesn't have much else going for her -- has lost her dog, the only living being with whom she has any kind of relationship. Wendy's disconnected from just about everything. Some of the townsfolk, notably a friendly security guard (Wally Dalton), offer help, but Wendy's in a world of her own.

So, I'm afraid, is this movie. I found it difficult to enter Wendy's world, and as I watched "Wendy and Lucy," I wondered if a movie can be so small, it makes its own argument for why it shouldn't have been made in the first place. just a thought, but one I couldn't shake.

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