Kelly Reichart isn’t from Oregon, but she likes to film there. And her films have a distinct signature — I wasn’t ten minutes into “Wendy and Lucy” before I was thinking about “Old Joy,” a film I saw probably three years ago and haven’t really thought about since (though it holds a special place in my heart, because about six seconds of it were filmed in my tiny home town.) Turns out Reichart directed “Old Joy,” too. I swear I didn’t know that.
The two films have more in common than their filming location. Both are about alienation; “Old Joy” was about two friends who go on a road trip but find they are utterly unable to reconnect; “Wendy and Lucy” takes the same theme a desolate step further. Wendy (a very scrubby Michelle Williams) is a girl, and Lucy a dog, and like the two guys in “Old Joy,” once they are separated, no amount of effort or intention can bring them back together.
But underneath (or actually, maybe just above) this philosophical theme is the simple economic reality of Wendy’s life. She is living in her car, on the way from Indiana to Alaska, where she hopes to find a job in a cannery or something. She doesn’t have much – she keeps a careful record of her gas costs, dividing it against the miles she’s traveled, calculating how much further her small stack of twenties will take her – and it becomes clear that she’s one obstacle away from utter ruin.
We are accustomed to our movie heroes being endlessly resourceful, forceful even, intent and undoubtedly able to achieve their goals, no matter the cost. In normal movie terms, “impossible” is not a fact, it’s a challenge. “Wendy and Lucy” hearkens back to great neorealist films like “The Bicycle Thief” — films that remind us that sometimes, and for some people, all it takes to knock a person off course is a stolen bicycle or a broken timing belt. It’s a harsh lesson, but one worth remembering from time to time.
Bomb Magazine has a great interview of Kelly Reichart by Portland’s reigning genius filmmaker, Gus Van Sant. Definitely worth a read.