It’s the rare movie Q&A where the director has to contend with a dog. But such a canine intrusion can be tolerated when the mutt (Lucy) belongs to the director (Kelly Reichardt) and shares top billing in her latest film, Wendy and Lucy. Reichardt recently spoke with Star critic Marshall Fine at the Emelin Theater in Mamaroneck. And despite a rambunctious Lucy (“She’s clearly not trained”, Reichardt explained, making the dog’s finely calibrated “performance” all the more impressive), the director shed light on her critically-appraised (and suddenly topical) feature.
Wendy and Lucy is a minimalist movie. The barebones plot—girl (Wendy, played by a subtle Michelle Williams) loses dog (Lucy, starring as herself) on her trip north to Alaska—is unaccompanied by music and goes for long stretches without dialogue. Reichardt shot it in two weeks and hunkered down in her Queens apartment for six months of editing. But there is a warmth to the film that belies its precise production. Cinematographer Sam Levy bathes the woods outside of Portland in an amber glow. A nighttime scene with a group of runaway teenagers and their pierced, prematurely weathered faces illuminated only by a bonfire is particularly effective. The friendship Lucy strikes with a security guard (Wally Dalton) is her lone (human) beacon; just about every other character she meets represents a roadblock.
Reichardt wanted to make a movie about people “without a net.” Wendy doesn’t have a family, education or savings account to fall back on. “You can’t get a job without a job; can’t get a house without a house,” says the guard. While these limitations can be tragic (the film was inspired by Hurricane Katrina and the brutal class divide it exposed), they also allow Wendy to fall off the grid in an America where it is increasingly difficult to do so. Reichardt explained that the Portland of the film is meant to look anonymous; its superstores stand as oases in massive parking lots just as they do in every other town. The big box strip mall ennui of the modern road trip (what would Kerouac think?) compels Lucy to keep running toward an unknown future until she’s practically out of land. Wendy might be rootless, but is there anything out there worth being rooted down to?
It’s hard to ignore the relevance of a film with a broke, homeless heroine who just scrapes by on the quest for a better life. But Reichardt (who shot the film a year before the credit crisis left all of us couch-diving for nickels) shudders to think of her movies as soapboxes. The director omitted character exposition (an injury that left Wendy’s ankle in a brace is unexplained) and Psych 101 lecturing (“I’m going to say I didn’t hear that,” she responded to a question about the lack of maternal figures).
While unsentimental, Wendy and Lucy is affecting. Reichardt has empathy to spare—she spoke of the movie’s “gutter punk” transients like a worried mother—but does not romanticize Wendy’s struggle. She has made a lean movie for lean times, refusing to prey on audience emotion. Even despite that adorable dog.