Wendy and Lucy is the best art-house girl-and-dog story you're ever going to see. It has the same emotional beats as a commercial girl-and-dog story - starting with girl loves dog and girl loses dog. The director, Kelly Reichardt, never hits any of the beats too hard, and though she sometimes breaks your heart, she's too wary of unearned sentiment to warm it.
She uses the bond between a girl and a girl's best friend to portray what our lower-middle-class life looks and feels like to an American who has gone into the margins. It's an unforgiving place, with few warm pockets. Wendy's dreams are modest: By the end, we realize that for her, a tidy little house with a well-groomed yard would be like paradise. But she's flat broke. She has left Indiana, where her brother and sister-in-law have no time for her (or money). She's heading to Alaska, where she has heard "they need people."
Even at 80 minutes, the film is like a short story that's a couple of pages too long. But the experience sticks with you, thanks largely to the actors. Michelle Williams plays the 20-something Wendy, a pale, skinny Indiana native in cutoff shorts and a hoodie; her short haircut makes her look like a 12-year-old boy, especially when she's doing her best to practice self-reliance.
Lucy plays herself, a sturdy yellow-and-brown mutt as constant as Old Faithful. The movie follows what happens when Wendy's car breaks down in an Oregon town while they're on their way north. She gets into a spot of trouble that separates her from her pet for a brief but fateful time. The local animal rescue operation counsels patience.
That quality is just about all Wendy has left. With her car in the shop of a fair but all-business mechanic (Will Patton), who doesn't do anyone favors, she tries to stick it out on her own in a verdant yet otherwise nondescript town bordering railroad tracks. Determined to stay within her budget and unable to sleep in her car when it's in the shop, she tries to sack out on a patch of green on a hill overlooking the tracks. She washes up in a service-station restroom. She grudgingly befriends a weathered, observant security guard (Wally Dalton), who offers her good advice and the use of his cell phone (he has "lots of minutes," he assures her).
Yet no presence is as strong to her as Lucy's absence. Williams is a wonderment as Wendy, as much the author of the film as Reichardt. She creates a character whose dignity lies in not revealing herself easily to anyone, including the audience. Too often when actors portray complicated or enigmatic characters, they seem to be flirting with the audience, playing hard to get. Not Williams. When she's with most people, even with her friend the security guard, betraying any bit of what she's feeling or thinking seems to hurt her a little bit. When she accepts a few dollars from the guard, you can't tell whether she feels primarily grateful, confused or defeated.
Only with her dog can Wendy be open; only with her dog can she be mature. The movie contains a few pulsating episodes, including a scene around a hippie-hobo campfire and a scary nocturnal encounter with an embittered homeless man. But, mostly, it's about Wendy wandering through a town she doesn't know as she comes to some tough conclusions about her and Lucy's life. Wendy, and the movie, too, pack unexpected power. After the slow, quiet buildup, you don't think they have it in them. But they do.
Wendy and Lucy
(Oscilloscope) Starring Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Lucy as herself. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Rated R for language. Time 80 minutes.