Since I do my best to go into a movie as naked as possible, all I knew about Wendy and Lucy was that Michelle Williams played a girl who lost her dog. But the film isn't really about that. Like Reichardt's previous film Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy is a continuation of Reichardt's meditation on the directionless floating of late-twenty to early-thirtysomethings. Lucy simply represents another part of Wendy's life that is flaking off as she makes her desperate dash from an old home in Indiana to a new hope in Alaska (where, Wendy says, "they need people"). We know little of Wendy's past. She has a bandage on her right ankle and a brace around her ribs (was she fleeing abuse?). She calls her brother-in-law and speaks to him awkwardly and intimately (was she having an affair with her sister's husband?).
Whatever the case, Wendy and Lucy works better for us not knowing, because the glow of uncertainty around Wendy helps shed light on the personal experiences she has in the small Oregonian town her car breaks down in. But this is both Wendy and Lucy's strength AND weakness. In Old Joy, Reichardt kept the focus almost entirely on the solemn but intense interactions of Daniel London and Will Oldham where, even in the film's short running time, we were able to deem a great deal about the past, present, and future of their male-to-male relationship. But in Wendy and Lucy Reichardt shows a desire to cast an eye upon a wider social arena... and it doesn't work.
Most cringe-worthy is Reichardt's handling of a scene in a grocery store where Wendy is nabbed shoplifting some dog food. The store's clerk - clean-cut, white, and with a shiny cross around his neck - escorts Wendy to the manager's office and proceeds to get off some high & mighty moralizing before calling the police over items that total less than five dollars. Later, while out searching for Lucy, Wendy crosses paths with the clerk again. With his "straight and narrow" Christian ethics already established, we see the clerk neglectfully stride past Wendy and get into his car as she desperately yells out Lucy's name. The moment is yet another tired and easy slap at small-town Christianity; the clerk's religious-born charity is useful only when it's self-serving. Reichardts too talented to play that cheap game.
Yet it's Wendy's acceptance of charity that really needs examining. Outside of a rude auto mechanic and her friendship with a Walgreen's security guard, Wendy casts an impatient and semi-sore eye on the town she's just "passing through". Thankfully, Reichardt avoids dipping into any "why me?" wah-wah disaffected young-adult panting, and Wendy does largely seem to take ownership of her hardships, but there still lingers a sense of young generation entitlement that tends to corrupt that sentiment.
A pair of local critics have put Wendy and Lucy within the context of our country's current recession. That works, but then making the leap in comparison to Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves is where one starts to rattle off the rails. Reichardt's film effectively taps into modern anxieties in a scene where a drifter (played staunchly by Larry Fessenden) sneaks up on a sleeping Wendy by the side of the road, but then quickly turns into bad poetry in a sequence where Wendy scatters items of clothing around town in order to attract Lucy by scent. This stretches the symbolism of Wendy's "shedding" a little too far, and frankly, when she left her pink panties draped over a branch, it all became a bit too precious for me.
Coincidentally, during Wendy's final ride - a fitting visual bookend to the film's opening tableau of stationary rail cars - some of the grocery store clerk's declarations seem to ring exactly true.