#82 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.
The zeroes did not see many high-profile “movements” or artistic trends in American cinema. Indie cinema, the big news of the early to mid nineties, was co-opted by Hollywood, and (perhaps resultingly) few new young directors emerged; likewise widely-embraced new developments. Still, there were transformations, some subtle, others under the radar. With Royal Tenenbaums setting the tone, studio “independents” embraced quirk as their defining characteristic – a once marginal taste now became the norm. Financially independent (which is to say, actually independent) cinema reacted accordingly. There were two prominent approaches, both defiantly smallscale. The first, and more low-budget, was dubbed “mumblecore.” Its subjects were middle-class youths, usually well-educated but not concerned with work (either for mysterious reasons or because they were given rather unconvincing “cool” jobs). The narrative focus was almost always on (heterosexual) relationships, and the form took anti-sleekness to its extreme: handheld camera, tiny casts and crews, often shot on video. Long-held close-ups were the aesthetic trademarks of the mumblers, and this (along with the filmmakers’ penchant to cast themselves and their friends in the main parts) often led to charges of narcissism.
At any rate, “mumblecore” received more media attention (albeit exclusively in hip, trendy outlets) than any other indie movement, and seems to have spent itself after reaching a high-water mark a year or two ago. Meanwhile, quietly but with growing acclaim and less controversy, a number of independent films appeared at festivals with an opposite tack: rather than explore the emotional travails of the financially secure but spiritually wandering young, it sought out subjects on the periphery of society: struggling immigrants, street orphans, crack addicts in the flooded hinterlands. Stylistically there was a similarity, in that these indies were usually shot low to the ground, but it should be noted that (ironically) the films with more impoverished subjects sometimes had bigger budgets, more access to professionals – even movie stars, and more established backers (Wendy and Lucy was produced by Todd Haynes). Movies like Ballast, Frozen River, and particularly the films of Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo) represented this trend which, unlike mumblecore, shows no signs of dissipating at the moment. Wendy and Lucy very firmly belongs to this category.
Unlike the studio indies, unlike even the mumblecore films, these movies (they have not yet, to my knowledge, been grouped under a heading save for the unsatisfying neo-neorealism) are deliberately un-romantic, even anti-romantic at times. To varying degrees they may employ a quiet poetry in the photography (Bahrani’s films in particular strive for a lyrical touch) but they almost always eschew a score, using either source music or no music (Wendy and Lucy goes only so far as having a tune hummed on the soundtrack). Nonactors are often employed for smaller parts (or, in the case of Ballast, almost every part), settings are often grim, and the focus is usually on character, so that even striking landscapes like the Delta regions of Ballast tend to serve as background for the figures onscreen. Editing is clipped and trim, compositions functional, dialogue minimal (long patches of silence abound), storytelling reduced to bare necessities. The Dardenne brothers, a filmmaking duo from Belgium, are often cited as influences, but their reputation for striking harshness or black humor is not really reflected in the more earnest American endeavors.
Indeed, these movies run the risk of seeming drab or dull; Wendy and Lucy is well past the halfway mark before its rote and deadpan delivery loosens a bit and allows the characters to breathe. There’s often a sense of displacement – the rigorous style of the filmmakers does not always gibe with the uncertain, stumbling lives of the protagonists. A self-conscious distancing is employed, as if the filmmakers don’t want to “impose” anything on their subjects, even at the risk of making their work seem slightly inhuman. Even at their best, these films do not tap into the warm stream of humanism present in previous influences like Italian neorealism or Pather Panchali; instead, at their worst, they can feel like forced exercises, “good for you” movies – the filmic equivalent of soggy vegetables. Sounds harsh, I know; having appreciated many of the movies in question I don’t want to give the impression of complete antipathy – still, caveats are in order as these neo-neorealist enterprises have met with largely uncritical critical reception.
Enough with the parameters of context; what of this particular film? Wendy and Lucy are, respectively, a homeless girl and her dog. We don’t know much about either before Wendy gets arrested for shoplifting and Lucy disappears. Actually, we’ve learned that Wendy is headed to Alaska, that she sleeps in parking lots (or did until her car broke down early in the movie), that she’s hesitant to call herself homeless and instead repeatedly describes herself as “passing through.” An early scene around a bonfire in the woods suggests that she does not see herself as part of the transient community – surrounded by other young drifters she seems uncomfortable, perturbed by their unkempt appearances and pronounced outsider styles. For most of the movie, she is alone – and save for one lonely call back home, we get the impression she prefers this solitude to company; or at least that she has made her peace with an unfortunate condition, and perhaps grown more comfortable with it than the alternative. We glean this information through subtle and unforced exposition on the part of writer/director Kelly Reichardt but in saying “we don’t know much about” Wendy, I’m not exaggerating. Where she came from, why she is unsettled (her sister, while struggling, has a home), what lies in her past…all left to the imagination.
Once Lucy vanishes, Wendy seems completely ensnared by the stark and dreary Oregon town. One is reminded of Bicycle Thieves, in which a worker’s bicycle is stolen and he spends the entire movie desperately searching for it. However, in this case, the stolen(?) “item” is a token of spiritual rather than financial security. Antonio had his son to keep him company on his desperate quest, but with Lucy gone, Wendy has no one. She’s already stranded because of her car but the dog’s disappearance compounds the sense that she’s enduring a sort of purgatory. Yet limbo can have a purifying effect. I mentioned that the first half of the film is not as engaging in the second; upon reflection, this may be intentional. The early passages are stuffed with irritating tendencies: characters reduced to offscreen voices, the close shots which ignore Wendy’s surroundings or make them seem as generic as possible, the one-notedness of Wendy’s actions and expressions, the reduction of certain characters (particularly the goody two shoes grocery clerk) to rank caricature. Because our perspective is completely dependent upon Wendy’s, we see her as our uncomplicated protagonist and suspect that our frustrations with her are not shared by the film. But as a security guard slowly emerges as a genuinely compassionate and helpful person, as the camera backs up and allows us to appreciate a sense of place, as Wendy loosens up a bit and shows more emotion, we understand that there may be a subtle criticism at work in the first half’s sense of narcissism.
Then again “criticism” may be too judgmental a term; Wendy’s guarded weariness and sour demeanor are not really seen as character flaws so much as protective strategies, completely understandable in this situation. In fact, by opening up a bit, by letting her brittle facade crack, by becoming more “alive” in the second half of the film, Wendy may not be making herself better off. She has, in a sense, become both more human and more humane – the climactic decision to leave Lucy with her new owner is a major turning point (another occurs when, sleeping in the woods, she is harassed by a crazy drifter in the middle of the night, a strong scene which drips with palpable fear and tension). Unfortunately, these very traits also leave her more vulnerable. The final scene, in which Wendy hops a freight train and sorrowfully rides the rails, now truly alone without her beloved pet reminds us that her emotional disengagement and narrow focus served a purpose. Somehow we doubt she will make it to Alaska any time soon; if she’s more aware than she had been, less in denial, we can’t be sure that this greater knowledge will redound to her benefit. Michelle Williams is fine as Wendy, convincingly conveying this shift from monotonous desperation to more soulful despair. But the most interesting performance in the movie is delivered by Will Patton as a fast-talking, somewhat dismissive, but ultimately sympathetic mechanic; indeed, his brief appearance is what helps turn the film around and bring a bit of vivacity and charisma into it. By contrast, Wally Dalton as the kindly security guard is likable but not entirely convincing; he never really transcends the Good Samaritan trappings of the stock part, which is unfortunate since the figure serves such a crucial purpose in the story.
While it was unfolding, I was not particularly enamored of Wendy and Lucy; indeed, until the last third of the film, I considered it the least impressive of the neo-neorealist films I’d seen. Yet looking back on it, the simple story grows in my imagination and I like it more and more, particularly for the way it delves into some of the inherent flaws of its “genre’s” approach and turns them into formal conceits – with something to say about both the character and her perspective. The movement from acerbic generalization and distancing direction to more sensitive, warmer, if also sadder engagement not only reflects Wendy’s growth but suggests a way forward for this indie movement: away from a too-principled disengagement to a deeper immersion in the emotional plight of its protagonists. The movie begins with a removed, overhead view of a freight train passing along the Oregon treeline, and it ends with a close shot of Wendy in one of these cars, and then the rail rushing by out the door. And then, as the credits roll, plangent, melancholy music, no longer a whispered humming or tinned supermarket muzak, but a real score, resonating with the feelings which have remained mostly buried throughout the movie. The restraint has been dropped, and the emotions finally burst forth, for better or for worse.