Wednesday, May 19, 2010

ON DVD: A welcome glimpse of reality on a hard road to Alaska


The more I think about "Wendy and Lucy" the more I like and appreciate it.
Of several standout moments in the film, the one most affecting and telling takes place in a small, confined space. Confinement could describe Wendy's economic state, since she has few options available to her. Trying to make her way to Alaska from Indiana, she tries to start her car, which also serves as her domicile, one morning and it won't start. While waiting for the auto shop to open, Wendy tries to feed her small dog Lucy, but only a few morsels tumble out of the bag of food.
Wendy keeps a ledger, in which she tracks her spending. She is seen deducting items of modest amounts and writing how much she has left. She may have enough to make it to Alaska.
She leaves Lucy outside a grocery store and goes inside and is caught shoplifting dog food. The overzealous young employee who takes her to the manager's office is insistent she be made an example of. He has a condescending and simplistic mindset and says coldly, "People who can't afford dog food shouldn't have a dog."
After being arrested, Wendy tells the officer her dog is tied up at the storefront, but she's taken to the station without Lucy and when she returns, her dog is missing.
The scene mentioned earlier takes place following an encounter while sleeping outside in the woods, while her car is in the repair shop overnight, during which she is awakened by a man who rifles through her belongings. After rambling on about people he's killed, he finally leaves. Williams plays the scene in which the stranger speaks to her as realistically as one could imagine it and throughout Wendy is cocooned in her blanket, quiet except for a slight whimper of fear, but what comes next is powerful acting.
She collects her few belongings and runs to a bathroom at a gas station, where she cries. She begins sobbing loudly and then her crying becomes the type of silent crying reserved for times of extreme duress. Sometimes when misfortune hits, it slows people down but isn't enough to induce tears. Other times people don't have the energy within them to cry and in an early scene Wendy almost cried, but abstained. Other times it is the only option, a bizarre and cathartic exercise of twisted meditation in which the severity of the crying serves as a respite from the troubles sending the person there in the first place. Williams acts this scene flawlessly and she allows the audience to take this emotional journey too, and everyone, Wendy included, feel relieved afterward.
So many movies feature characters with privileged and affluent lives in which they have high-powered, high-paying jobs and the only major problem is finding the right person to complete their vision of "having it all." "The Backup Plan", "Leap Year" and "When in Rome" are a few recent examples of this unfortunate formula. The latter two are the most offensive since they involve trips to Ireland and Italy, respectively. In "Leap Year" Amy Adams' character travels to Ireland to propose to her boyfriend and in "When in Rome" Kristen Bell is there to participate in her sister's wedding. This is of course, because in a time of double-digit unemployment everyone has the means readily available to jet off somewhere on a whim.
"Wendy and Lucy" is one of the most important films I've seen in a long time. The world needs more writers like Jonathan Raymond, more directors like Kelly Reichardt and more films like this in order to give a voice and representation to frequently ignored societal norms.
The future for Wendy is uncertain at the movie's conclusion. It's possible she'll land on her feet someday or it's possible she'll join the ranks of the chronically homeless, who too many people view as the result of a lack of personal responsibility. "Wendy and Lucy" wisely stays away from assigning any reason to Wendy's situation. The audience knows only where she is headed and that she maintains some communication with her sister, but not there is no specific event in her history provided. To do so would risk politicizing the movie and dividing the audience into groups blaming Wendy or blaming some aspect of society for her hardship. Just as nobody can explain the circumstances leading up to a stranger's homelessness, the audience can't pass judgment on Wendy. As a result, the story focuses on her struggle and only the hardest of hearts won't feel for her.


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