Produced by Joshua Blum, Larry Fessenden, Todd Haynes, Neil Kopp, Phil Morrison, Anish Savjani, and Rajen Savjani; directed by Kelly Reichardt; screenplay by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt; cinematography by Sam Levy; production design by Ryan Smith; costume design by Amanda Needham ; edited by Mike Burchett and Kelly Reichardt. Starring Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Will Oldham, John Robinson, Wally Dalton, Larry Fessenden, and Lucy. Color, 80 mins. An Oscilloscope Laboratories Release.
Wendy and Lucy together
Sometimes lefties can be too suspicious about the power of a good cry. Kelly Reichardt’s new film Wendy and Lucy is a tearjerker of sorts, and this direct appeal to the emotions is often enough to get our critical hackles up. There’s some good reason for this. Academic fashion has told us to embrace, and then reject, our heritage from Bertolt Brecht, the capacity for distanciation and rational thought as critical tools for an interventionist, antiillusionist cinema. What’s more, too often the direct emotional appeal is the last refuge of scoundrels, getting into our psyches through our tear ducts and forcing us to swallow pap that our logical minds would outright reject. Nevertheless, we cannot be too quick to dismiss the progressive potential of affect, making radical ideas not just agreed to but palpably felt through cinema’s capacity for identification and bodily engagement. Wendy and Lucy is a film starring Michelle Williams as Wendy, a young woman of limited means whose monetary misfortunes result in the agonizing severance of a friendship, and we the audience feel this pain along with Wendy. As I will describe below, there is radical potential to the political mobilization of affect. For that potential to be realized, however, a film must be extremely clear about what its politics are, and who and what its characters represent.
Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt had been plying her craft in relative obscurity until a couple of years ago, when her 2006 feature Old Joy was named the best film at that year’s Sundance Film Festival, not by the jury (playing in the Frontiers sidebar, it was ineligible for top prizes) but by near-universal critical acclaim. A small coterie of admirers had been keeping tabs on Reichardt since her funky 1994 debut film, River of Grass, a film set in and around the Everglades and focusing on two less-than-enterprising would-be criminals whose noirish plans get mired in metaphorical swamp water. Video festivals also noticed Reichardt’s medium-length work Ode (1999), a poetic reverie based on the story told in the song “Ode to Billy Joe.”
What all of these works have in common is a concern for the unglamorous byways and nonurban outposts of the U.S. landscape and, more significantly, the often forgotten, sidelined, or “marginal” individuals who populate these swaths of America. Reichardt’s work is characterized by an attention to regional specificity and the unique experience of subprofessional, economically disadvantaged people in somewhat precarious circumstances. River of Grass plays these situations for comedy without sacrificing warmth, but the later works evince a far more somber, even elegiac tone for a possibility of survival “off the grid” or in alternative economic lifestyles that are no longer feasible and increasingly dangerous. In this, Reichardt’s work shares certain thematic concerns with that of other American maverick auteurs such as Lodge Kerrigan and Rob Nilsson, although tonally and stylistically these artists diverge quite dramatically.
Nilsson’s work with nonprofessional performers, many from San Francisco’s underclass, maintains an urban informality; whereas, Kerrigan’s films tend toward the chillingly formal. Reichardt’s sylvan mode is somewhat antithetical to these; however, Wendy and Lucy bears some thematic comparison to Kerrigan’s 1998 film, Claire Dolan. In that film, the late Katrin Cartlidge plays the title character, an upscale New York sex worker whose vague, unspecified debts essentially make her the property of her pimp (Colm Meaney). Like Wendy, Claire is a white woman of limited means and limited options, apparently a fallen middle-class subject for whom agency is highly circumscribed. And, like Wendy, Claire’s circumstances prevent her from keeping a beloved pet (in Dolan’s case a cat). In the moment when Claire loses her cat, and in other instances of unbridled abuse, Kerrigan’s film works on the level of affect, delivering an unmistakable leftist-feminist message about those women whose choices, or lack thereof, render them both subjugated and invisible. What’s more, Kerrigan’s icy mise-en-scène only heightens our emotional identification with Dolan by contrast.
Once we look closer, however, and begin to separate ourselves from the affective devices Kerrigan employs, certain anomalies appear. Some are factual. Is Kerrigan providing an accurate picture of how “high class hookers” really operate? Doesn’t the film perhaps conflate certain trappings of high-end haute bourgeois sex work with common liberal anxieties about the “streetwalker”? But these lead to others that pertain precisely to questions of race and class that the film is ill-equipped to address. Does Claire Dolan invoke a hodgepodge of certain vague mythologies around sex work, many of which are highly detrimental to the achievement of sex workers’ rights, in order to generate a character more likely to draw sympathy from the presumed constituency of the art house?
I hope you will forgive this detour, because I believe that it serves to clarify many of the aspects of Wendy and Lucythat are right and those which are quite wrong. As in Kerrigan’s film, our point of identification is a young (in fact, younger) white woman, Wendy, who has been interpreted in film reviews as a “drifter,” an “itinerant,” or simply as “poor.” In fact, I in no way exempt myself from this. My initial encounter with the film, at the Toronto International Film Festival, led me to conclude that Reichardt had made a film about a female “drifter,” and that among Wendy and Lucy’s other significant virtues, it was highly significant and laudable that Reichardt had taken it as her task to assay a character study of someone well outside the American cultural imaginary: the female drifter. World cinema has provided a few models for this type of character, most notably Agnès Varda’s superlative Vagabond (1985). But within our collective image bank, homelessness and itinerant labor tends to adhere to certain raced, classed, and gendered stereotypes, usually to the detriment of those subjects who fail to conform to them. (To cite another relevant cinematic example, Gabriele Muccino’s severely underrated 2006 Will Smith film The Pursuit of Happyness demonstrates the material difficulties a homeless father faces when seeking shelter with his child. The cultural narrative assumes that homeless men abandon their families and mothers stay with their children, and this dominant fiction is made manifest in terms of available social services.) However, when we get past the assumptions that we bring to Wendy and Lucy, about who Wendy is, who she should be, and what her actual circumstances are, we can begin to see the film quite differently. In this light, Reichardt’s highly productive political work still holds, but also gives way to fissures and contradictions that cannot simply be swept under the rug.
When we meet Wendy, she is on her way to Alaska with Lucy the dog, planning to get work at a fishery. These jobs, we learn early in the film, typically offer room and board, so Wendy’s careful budget demonstrates a high degree of forethought. But what we soon discover is that she has not allowed, or materially cannot allow, any margin for error in terms of expenditure, and this is where her trouble begins. So, based on the available evidence provided by the film, Wendy is struggling, headed for a job in a bad car, scraping by but hardly down and out. It is what happens to her in Oregon that lays her low. When she runs out of dog food, she first goes around the area collecting aluminum cans, then, somehow, locates a recycling center in this strange new town before walking away when the queue is too long. Wendy’s next option, shoplifting from the local supermarket, gets her nabbed by an overzealous young clerk (John Robinson) who insists that his boss turn her in to the police. (“The rules apply to everyone,” he brays, with a smugness whose precise absolutism rings a bit tin-eared. “If you can’t afford dog food then you shouldn’t have a dog.”) Wendy is arrested, somehow failing to alert anyone that Lucy is still tied to the bike rack in front of the store until she’s already being driven away in the squad car. This, along with the $50 fine and the massive automotive troubles, serve as the chief inciting incidents for Wendy’s plight and the film’s downward trajectory.
On the one hand, Reichardt achieves something altogether rare here, and her successes should be applauded. Wendy and Lucy applies certain gestures of the melodrama (protagonist buffeted about by fate, “child” in peril) and deliberately scales them down, placing them within the context of a small, minor-key regionalist character study. Wendy’s situation is infinitely comprehensible because it hinges on direct material circumstance—money, transportation, run-ins with local authorities—that exist “on the ground” of daily existence, rather than within the often baroque-cum-rococo narrative gymnastics of traditional melodrama. Reichardt is working within comprehensibly realist languages, but giving them a heightened, acutely felt emotive shape. Moreover, a great deal of Wendy and Lucy’s affective power derives from Michelle Williams’s exceptional performance. Williams plays Wendy in a muted, inward manner, as a young woman tough enough to take care of herself but shy and reserved enough to indicate that conducting the business of an independent life—navigating an unfamiliar town on foot, or standing up to a potentially shifty mechanic—demands of Wendy the cultivation of an extroversion that runs contrary to her shier inner nature.
Michelle Williams gives an exceptional as Wendy, a character resigned to society's margins
Williams’s reading of the Wendy character, together with Reichardt’s appropriation of the muted tropes of melodramatic film discourse, combine to produce a rather unique sensation while watching Wendy and Lucy. I would wager that most viewers not only identify with Wendy but also feel unusually susceptible to registering her own vulnerabilities on our own spectatorial psyches, even down to our bodies. From the scene in the supermarket manager’s office, where we fidget along with Wendy, to the highly theatrical night sequence in the woods with the unnamed homeless man (Larry Fessenden), Wendy and Lucy activates Wendy’s body as one under threat, and whose threat we in turn feel by proxy. However, unlike many other sites of spectatorial identification, such as horror cinema or pornography, Reichardt’s film articulates these moments within a realist/materialist melodrama whose leftist aims are explicit. Every inch of the way, Wendy and Lucy displays how a chain of events leads Wendy to what is eventually, in her eyes, the best choice out of not very many: to leave Lucy behind in Oregon with the foster family that took her in. This moment, a classic tearjerker that has been compared, for good and ill, to everything from Umberto D.(1952) to Old Yeller (1957), seals the deal, in a sense, for Reichardt’s affective politics. Wendy, a young drifter with limited options, hit the skids one day and lost her dog. As we cry, Wendy and Lucyimplicitly asks us to consider the unseen toll of poverty in America.
However productive Reichardt’s strategy may be in certain respects, it simultaneously occludes other possible understandings of the actual material circumstances that Wendy and Lucy seemingly aims to elucidate. These problems, too, center on the question of identification and affect, a dual-edged sword by which the film both lives and dies. Above I compared Wendy and Lucy to Kerrigan’s film Claire Dolan, and Reichardt’s image of the working poor or the itinerant laborer begs questions similar to those posed by Kerrigan’s image of the urban sex worker. The closer we look at Wendy and Lucy, the more we need to ask who Wendy is, and who she is supposed to be. And if there are notable discrepancies between these images, we need to ask whether they are ones that Reichardt expects an upscale, mostly white bourgeois art-house audience to mentally elide during the act of spectatorship.
Before Wendy arrives in the Oregon town where her car will break down and she’ll lose Lucy, we see her make a night stop, wandering over to a group of young people by a campfire. She seems a bit uncertain, but soon Wendy relaxes, and strikes up a brief conversation with the kids. When she tells them she’s on her way to Alaska to work the fisheries, one of the wackier characters in the group, Icky (Will Oldham) says that he’s done that before, provides Wendy with specific names and contacts, and regales her with an anecdote about getting drunk and wrecking a Caterpillar tractor while working up there. On the one hand, there is no obvious narrative purpose to this sequence. It seems mostly designed to give Reichardt’s friend / musical advisor (and Old Joy star) Oldham room for an extended goof within the film. Wendy’s interaction here, however, is the first clue that simply identifying her as a “drifter” or an “itinerant” is rather misleading. She behaves as if she’s found a drum circle.
What I’m implying is that Wendy may be intended to represent a segment of the fragile working class, but as depicted within the strict text of the film, she bears the mannerisms of a middle-class college woman who, at some time or another, adopted the outward trappings of a reduced, hippy-scavenger lifestyle as a choice of some kind. College towns are full of Wendys, and I don’t mean the burger stands. Make no mistake, this in no way denigrates the perfectly valid lifestyle choice that many people make (I myself did, for a time) to avoid needless consumption, eschew regular work, to move around from job to job, stay in communes or youth hostels or simply sleep rough. But Wendy and Lucy clearly wants us to mistake this situation for something very different.
If, for example, we accept the film’s dominant signals (and the dominant interpretations of it), that Wendy is a “drifter” living hand to mouth, just one bad break away from total disaster, then how are we to make sense of the shoplifting incident? Did Wendy, with her meticulous plans, simply fail to budget for dog food? Was she a subject so desperate, living so fully within the exigencies of the immediate, that she just tried to steal what she needed, never thinking of the consequences? (Within the film’s internal logic, to even ask such questions aligns you with the right-wing store clerk.) As it stands, Wendy lost $50 paying a fine for stealing a $1.99 can of Alpo. This behavior is in no way indicative of the meticulous, even obsessive budgeting that characterizes the lives of real working-poor individuals. (Besides, anyone who really relies on stealing knows you don’t risk getting caught in some unfamiliar Podunk town.) What it does characterize, however, is the behavior of middle-class university hippies for whom shoplifting is less a necessity than a semiotic event, certainly representing useful and sometimes even necessary savings but also signifying “fuck-the-man!” rebellion and competitive sport. True, Williams doesn’t play Wendy in this manner, but the behavior her character is given to play by Reichardt and Raymond, wholly implausible within its own sphere, can only be understood as a fissure within the very conception of the Wendy character, as well as the greater material circumstance she is meant to represent.
The most noteworthy human relationship in Wendy and Lucy, in many ways the emotional bedrock of the film, occurs between Wendy and the security guard (Wally Dalton) of the Walgreens where Wendy’s car stalls out. From their initial encounter, when the older gentleman knocks on the car window and informs Wendy that she cannot sleep there, through their various interactions involving borrowed cell-phone use and avuncular advice, this fleeting relationship seems to serve to demonstrate at least two things within the film: that one can occasionally discover kindly strangers, and that in the end, they may not be enough. However, these interactions, or Wendy’s dull, nearly comic treatment at the police station, ultimately bring Wendy and Lucy’s contradictions front and center. In fact, by this point I might go so far as to propose that this modest little character study is a “cracking text,” as the editors of Cahiers du cinéma infamously proposed about John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Wendy, we are told, is a drifter, and allegedly a criminal. Why are all these people being so nice to her? How would these situations play out if, say, Wendy were black? An undocumented immigrant? If she didn’t speak English? And how would these scenarios go down, from start to finish, if Lucy weren’t a dog, but a baby girl?
How are we to read Wendy's desperation?
Make no mistake: it isn’t fair to critique Wendy and Lucy for the various types of film it could have been. We need to address it for the film that it is. The continual description of Wendy as a “drifter” or an “itinerant,” however, raises political questions of just who comprises the itinerant worker class in the U.S., particularly among women. Wendy and Lucy is an attempt for cinema to imagine the female itinerant worker, but this image is so foreign to the bourgeois imaginary that we are asked to revert to default expectations, behavior more characteristic of grunge kids s sleeping on couches at the Student Union. When Wendy makes decisions that seem difficult to reconcile, it’s because the film is hamstrung by this failure of imagination. (To take one crucial example: most midsize to major cities in the U.S. have veterinarian-supported advocacy groups designed to help homeless people keep their pets. Such knowledge is beneath the cultural radar of Wendy and Lucy.) In the final shot of the film, we see Wendy, deflated but not without a spark of hope, run to the railroad tracks and hop a boxcar out of town. When did you last see an open boxcar? Yes, people still ride the rails, but in our age of heightened security and expanded private property right, the stock image is far more available than the option itself.
Again, we are stranded within a set of tropes (drifter, tramp, hobo, derelict) suited to another age, and certainly another race and class. Now, these images are fashion accoutrements. In fact, films such as Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (both 2007) explicitly poke fun at the continued romance of the boxcar hobo. For Reichardt, however, this admittedly beautiful final image is the only card left in the deck, since by film’s end Wendy and Lucy has left us with a bevy of materialist contradictions and a heap of good intentions, but no way out.
Michael Sicinski is a writer and teacher based in Houston.