Dog Days

Wendy and Lucy
Running time 80 minutes
Written by Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Starring Michelle Williams

Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, from a screenplay by Ms. Reichardt and Jon Raymond, who worked together on Ms. Reichardt’s previous film, Old Joy (2006), is another exercise in minimalist cinema about ultra-ordinary people. Wendy (Michelle Williams), a young Indiana woman, embarks on a road trip to Ketchikan, Alaska, where she hopes to find a well-paying job. She is traveling with her (and Ms. Reichardt’s) dog, Lucy. So if you were anticipating from the title still another film about two lesbians, fuggedaboutit.

In any event, she gets no further than a Portland suburb before her car breaks down, and she is forced to fend for herself through several traumatic experiences before she jumps on a freight train to resume her journey to Alaska.

When asked by Deborah Solomon in The New York Times Magazine of Nov. 30, 2008, what Wendy and Lucy cost, Ms. Reichardt replied: “A total of $300,000. We shot in 18 days with a crew of volunteers and used only available light. I cut for six months in my apartment in Astoria, Queens, occasionally making trips back to Oregon to shoot the kind of footage you can’t do with a crew in tow, like train yards.”

The interviewer suggested to Ms. Reichardt that “the film is oddly timely, reminding us of how people on the lower rungs of society are the first to fall off when times get tough,” and asked, “Are you trying to bring a jolt of social realism into American film?” The filmmaker responded: “Jon Raymond and I came up with the story, post-Katrina, and we did start with this idea: Say you have the gumption to set out and make your life better, but you don’t have the benefit of an education, a nest egg or a family net. Can you really improve your situation?”

The film does not answer the Reichardt-Raymond question conclusively, but the preponderance of the evidence is very decisively slanted to the negative, which should make the viewing experience more depressing than it is. Actually, I became extremely fascinated by Wendy’s travails, if only to marvel at her amazing resilience after every setback.

To her credit, Ms. Reichardt never allows her camera to become a voyeuristic witness to a young woman in distress. Instead, it remains focused on a largely indifferent American landscape of strangers in perpetual motion to nowhere. I suspect that there was more than the usual degree of rapport between the director and the actress, particularly in the mysterious realm of improvisation. Hence, I recommend the film as an artistic achievement, though not one unduly addicted to the pleasure principle.

Dog Days