2008 was the year of the dog. In the past 12 months, canine comedies have rolled off the Hollywood assembly line seemingly every week. Bolt, Beethoven’s Big Break, Hotel for Dogs, Snow Buddies, Marley & Me — the list goes on and on. As, it appears, will the adventures of a certain Beverly Hills Chihuahua, which scampered from the top position at the box office straight into sequel preproduction.
Doggie dramas were another matter. They were a breed apart. With the exception of Kelly (Old Joy) Reichardt’s moving, minimalist Wendy and Lucy, in fact, there really wasn’t a breed to speak of. This is a country that likes its four-legged film stars cute and its sagas of puppy love basically upbeat (even if, à la Marley, they sometimes go for the cheap weep in the last act).
American moviegoers do not appear to be holding their breath for a remake of Old Yeller (1957), much less of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952) — in my official opinion, the saddest movie ever made. Next to De Sica’s film, Old Yeller looks like Scooby-Doo.
Reichardt offers the perfect antidote to movie pooch overload with this neorealist drama about a young woman attempting to make her way from Indiana to Alaska in a doomed Honda with her one friend in the world, a floppy-eared golden retriever. Wendy is played with exceptional restraint by Michelle Williams. The role of Lucy is filled by the director’s own pet, who performs here under her real name.
The script, based on Jonathan Raymond’s short story “Train Choir” and cowritten by Reichardt with the author, is an exercise in extreme sketchiness. We’re never told anything about the twentysomething’s personal history, including why she evidently is disconnected from her friends and family; why she thought driving to Alaska in search of work at a cannery was a good idea; or where she got the notion she could make the trip on $600.
The movie is like the Book of Job with pooper scoopers. Wendy faces one setback after another with an unflappability that at times borders on the catatonic. Woken one morning by a kindly Oregon security guard (Wally Dalton), she’s informed that sleeping in a car while parked in the shopping-center lot is forbidden and she’ll have to move.
When the car refuses to start, the old man helps Wendy push it onto the street and into a parking space, tells her where to find the nearest repair shop, and tips her off to a market with the best prices in town. On top of everything else, she’s out of dog food. Her troubles have only begun.
The car, it turns out, costs more to repair than replace, rendering Wendy homeless and immobile in one stroke. Sensing an economic crisis on the horizon, she ties Lucy to a bike rack outside the market, and inside is promptly busted by some Nazi Boy Scout suck-up (John Robinson) for pocketing a small amount of food.
While we wait for the police to arrive and cart her off to jail, let me draw your attention to an understated bit of social commentary that might otherwise escape notice. In the store, Wendy pauses to leaf through magazines, ignoring a familiar-looking one that is, on closer inspection, a dead ringer for Entertainment Weekly. Reichardt has renamed it Amusement Weekly in the instantly recognizable font and placed a generic blond starlet on its cover.
In a mere two seconds, tucking it in an out-of-the-way corner of the shot, the filmmaker has treated us to a wry critique of a system that celebrates the derivative, bombastic, puerile and pixilated over the naturalistic and character driven. Wendy and Lucy is no comedy, believe me, but this is a divinely cheeky touch.
Wendy is fingerprinted and pays a fine, which brings her even closer to the edge. But the worst is yet to come. When she returns to the market, Lucy has vanished. Can things get any worse?
Sure. The pound’s closed for the day, and when Wendy camps in the woods for the night, a venom-spitting psycho approaches her. Study the closeup of Williams’ face. She doesn’t say a word, yet there’s more pure terror right there than in all the screaming in The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th combined. The originals and the remakes.
We know very little about this androgynous drifter, but never for a second do we doubt that she will find her beloved companion or die trying. And, for the rest of the picture, she looks everywhere and tries everything. A number of reviewers have made a case for the notion that the movie’s theme is the current tenuousness of the U.S. economy. To the extent it has a theme, my feeling is that it has more to do with the kindness of strangers.
That genial old security guard is one of the film’s few recurring figures, and the tentative friendship he develops with Wendy is as touching as it is low-key. People living on society’s fringes, Reichardt seems to say, can still lend a hand to a fellow traveler in need. It may consist of nothing more than the use of a cellphone or the gift of a few dollars, but it’s the humanity behind the gesture that matters. And, when you’ve reached a point in life’s journey as precarious as Wendy’s, that simple human touch can be the difference between giving up and going on.