Film : Me and my dog
The heartrending, pitch-perfect "Wendy and Lucy" provides a perfect antidote for the cacophony of the summer blockbusters currently crowding local movie theatres. It's playing Saturday, June 6, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society.
When the film opens, we find Wendy -- we never learn her last name - wandering through the woods like one of the last Nez Percé Indians of the Northwest. She is calling for her dog, Lucy. Played by Michelle Williams, Wendy has tomboy looks with short hair. She finds her pet with a group of New Age vagabonds around a campfire, and through their conversation with her, we learn that Wendy has stopped in Oregon on her way to Alaska in hopes of finding a job in a Ketchikan fish cannery.
Director Kelly Reichardt tells us very little else about this modest, self-contained young woman, but simply shows us the rhythms of her life. Wendy sleeps in her 20-year-old Honda and cleans up in the washrooms of gas stations. She keeps careful track of her expenses in a notebook. She has a sister in Indiana, where we assume she began her westward journey.
One morning an elderly security guard (Walter Dalton) knocks on her car window to announce she can't park in the lot where he's found her. But the car won't start. A garage mechanic across the street (Will Patton) takes a look and gives her bad news. It'll take her entire stash to get it fixed.
One bad thing breeds another, until Lucy really disappears, and Wendy goes on a determined hunt for her. Life goes on around her, no one noticing the dire straits she's in, and Wendy seems almost too polite and self-effacing to help herself.
Why should it matter, and why should we even care about Wendy and her dilemmas? First, because Ms. Reichardt depicts this young woman and her world with such directness and lack of sentimentality. Concerned that Ms. Williams would look too pretty for the part, Ms. Reichardt is said to have asked the actor not to wear make-up or wash her hair for two weeks.
Wendy's world is the one we all live in and don't give much thought to. The people Wendy encounters don't lack compassion. The security guard lends her his cell phone to make calls to the dog pound after Lucy disappears, and the mechanic cuts his towing fee to give her a break. Busy with their own lives, they do what they think they can.
Wendy belongs to the forgotten segment of society -- the short-order cooks who work at roadside diners, the 20-somethings who spend every penny fixing up second-hand cars; the homeless. In our Horatio Alger nation, it's not a social group Americans are programmed to worry much about, even in these hard economic times when scores of people are losing jobs and/or their homes.
In addition to Ms. Reichardt's masterful direction, Ms. Williams inspires you to care about Wendy. While a store clerk self-righteously tells her she shouldn't have a dog if she can't afford to feed it, Wendy takes good care of Lucy without theatrics or clichés.
This young woman doesn't waste time feeling sorry for herself or wallowing in despair. She has a good heart, and she soldiers on despite setbacks and she makes hard choices. Her life matters. "Wendy and Lucy" is a deeply moral movie, and a haunting reminder that every life matters.
"Wendy and Lucy," Sat., June 6, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. $8, $5 for MV Film Society members. Doors open at 7:30 pm.
Brooks Robards writes about film, art, and theater for The Times.