A tough sell

Michelle Williams evokes pathos and sympathy in bleak, brave film

In Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams plays a 20-something, living in her car with her dog, en route from Indiana to Alaska in search of employment.

For a film, bleak is a tough sell. Bleak kills parties, rains on picnics and hangs out at nursing homes. It’s hard to convince people to go see bleak, especially when action, horror and comedy are playing next door.

Wendy and Lucy is one bleak film.

Running just 80 minutes, and with a budget on par with what an AIG executive tips his valet, director and co-screenwriter, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film has little room for waste or extravagance.

This coincides with the plight of Wendy, played perfectly by Michelle Williams. Wendy is a twenty-something, living in her car with her dog, en route from Indiana to Alaska. Her goal is to find decent employment at a fish cannery plant.

The film opens midway through Wendy’s journey, when her car stalls in a parking lot in Oregon. This leads to a heartbreaking chain of events that subtly address themes of morality, kindness, survival and the dichotomy between love and ownership.

Applause deservedly goes to Reichardt, but the film belongs to Williams. Appearing in nearly every frame of the film, her performance saves an incredibly barren plot from what could have easily been a movie of self-indulgent claptrap. Looking unglamorous and androgynous, she evokes pathos and sympathy despite playing the relatively bland type of person many of us ignore on a daily basis, and all without resorting to cheap, maudlin, audience-baiting gimmickry.

With a spot-on example of minimalist acting, Williams can convey a greater emotional depth and insight into her character with just a blank stare than many of her better-paid contemporaries can do with a full script. Just consider the talent required to hold together a cheerless story with a miniscule plot, little dialogue, no star-power, no music, no laughs and no romantic story lines. Oscars have been given for less, I assure you.

Considering the daily reminders of our society’s current financial anxiety, the timing of Wendy and Lucy is incredibly apt. In keeping with the film’s consistent unwillingness to offer easy answers, Reichardt has given the film an ambivalent ending, one that echoes the perils of our economic worry.

Now, arguably the cinema should be a place for escaping these problems as opposed to re-living them, but it also a place for inspiration. Is it a bleak film? Definitely. But it is also a brave one. What we take from it is up to us.

Published in Volume 63, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 26, 2009)

Related Reads