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NYFF08: Sort of everyday fairy tales ("Happy-Go-Lucky" / "Wendy and Lucy")

David Phelps

Above: Sally Hawkins, the princess and the gypsy of Happy-Go-Lucky.

On the outskirts of Mike Leigh’s blissful Happy-Go-Lucky lie child abusers, stalkers and supremacists, homeless, hairy troglodytes, school bullies, back problems, driving perils, and a series of crumbling relationships no amount of bourgeois BBQs and videogaming seem quite prepared to rectify (quite the reverse). The funniest joke involves a woman whose lover cheated on her for five years. And her subsequent breakdown. It’s not a complicated worldview. Basically, the movie sets up like Candide: hopeless cases of hopeful people left to luck (hence the title) in a god-awful world of misery and, at best, delusion.
These are the usual peasants on the periphery of fairy tales: Cinderellas who go to the balls and come back home forever (Madame Bovary-ish), and Sleeping Beauties who stay eternally asleep with their nightmares of dragon teeth and needle-pricks, disturbed, if at all, by a prince taking advantage of their slumber. It’s the world of too many Korean imports (both violent and domestic); of 70s New York grit films, despite its drab suburban backdrop, so much, in fact, that starry-eyed heroine, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), takes driving lessons with a trait-by-trait carbon copy of Travis Bickle (Eddie Marsan). What’s funny, if it’s funny, is people’s ability to take it all for granted and move on. Like so many comedies, Happy-Go-Lucky shows us how to accept the world, if not destroy it, as a terrible, terrible place.
Witness: Poppy, the princess and gypsy, usually in luck, getting lucky, and inhabiting a Where’s Waldo-like series of zippy striped outfits and a bohemian fortress/castle, like herself, decked out in all colors of acrylic cloth. Laughing at just about anything—other people’s bulletins, her own jokes—with a girlish snort and lightning eyes, blithely saying whatever comes into mind, Poppy’s flakiness incarnate, a conversational anarchist cheerily mocking anything anyone’s doing, or that’s done. It’s the old Celine and Julie world-as-playground idea (other girls with a quite similar clothe fortress); Poppy, kids school teacher, means to make the world a happier place, though rather than grant us one of those make-a-lot-of-noise-and-walk-funny “affirmations” of a life I hope I'd have the courage to rid myself of violently, as we get in Amelie or Garden State, Mike Leigh gives us a Poppy who is, like any good screwball heroine, an unrepentant nuisance. Every once in a while she takes control of herself, to do something, and it’s a bit of a revelation.
No point to transcribing incidents and episodes. This is ultimately a movie for Hawksians: the charged, in-charge feminine wiles; the endless banter; the frequent drinking; the warm community indoors vs. the cold outside; the hanging-out; the seeing-what-happens; the playfulness of people playing because there is, simply—and it’s the best and worst fact of life for these filmmakers—no other reason to live. And perhaps best of all, a classicist’s mise-en-scène, of establishing shots, and unexpected cut-ins, and deep, radiant colors, and a line of dialogue that spurs the next scene, hours and miles later. With dried-out, shaky-cam verité, the popular choice of at least a few New York Film Festival directors so far, we can see what it’s like for a character to move through space. With Hawks or this rather unexpected Leigh, we can also see the space, and what it’s like inhabited. This is a real comfort movie: a movie about people comfortable where they go.

Above: Lucy.

Kelly Reichhardt’s Wendy and Lucy opens with trains, and they’re heard throughout. Like a few of the other very few good, visible, working American filmmakers (Van Sant, Jacobs, Hutton, Benning, Malick, maybe Kerrigan, not to mention lessers like Haynes, Penn, and Gianvito), Reichhardt, in an age of globalization and gentrification, Starbucks and Walmarts, is obsessed with recovering hints of Americana: trains and campfires and hobos, marginalized migrants, the people, pioneers or nomads or both, who, as Woody Guthrie put it (and trains do), keep on keeping on. Stragglers. And so Wendy (Michelle Williams), like Poppy, another self-sufficient girl who discovers her life is left to luck, may have something of Reichhardt herself. She sets out for Alaska, making her way West like all the old settlers, with her car and dog and cash, all of which will give out on her in a single small town, a cipher-like girl with no name type, if only because she proves anonymous to The Man, evidenced in all the talk of petty rules and regulations she breaks stealing food and sleeping in her car, getting arrested, and losing her dog in the meantime. There’s no room for her type in this town (the parking lot she sleeps in is, in fact, Walmart’s, which has the space—but not room), which is probably why the best defense she mounts, repeatedly, is the folksy: “I’m just passing through.” Not quite.
Mythic folk figure or lonely dog-lover, Wendy is one of what, despite the absence of the new Dardennes film, looks to be a series of NYFF protagonists pacing constantly and tacitly, unable to communicate with a world and its rigid social order that’re totally incompatible with their own private dreams and fears (see also, by all means: The Headless Woman, Tony Manero). Mostly, this is a movie about a girl tallying her dwindling budget; the only thing Wendy seems open talking with is her golden retriever, Lucy, till Lucy's quickly lost in this doggie L’Avventura. Crucially, only once does Reichhardt use that abused icon of real independent film, the handheld camera, when Wendy, in some attempt to communicate herself, finally breaks down against a gas station bathroom wall. The rest is shot in solid deep blacks and gleams of daylight and fluorescent banks and restaurants spotting highways late at night. Once again, Reichhardt has captured the American wilderness, and once again, the question is whether that wilderness is of forests or of drive-throughs.
So it’s a failed folk tale. Or, as one cohort has suggested, a fairy tale. The only private thought of Wendy’s we’re permitted is her dirge-like hum that dominates the soundtrack from around the third shot on, as she walks through a forest, and which she delivers like an incantation to protect her from other sights and sounds of the world, even though it’s bizarrely echoed in a grocery store’s muzak. Just like Poppy, Wendy’s looking for insulation from an unlucky outside (no wonder she clings to the bathroom walls)—but never finds it. Also, like Poppy, she has a whole series of encounters with half-satirical, entirely marginalized businessmen (the car of Poppy’s driving instructor’s reads “good driving is no accident”; Wendy is stuck with the Walmart security guard and an auto repairman who’s entertainment is picking up the phone and responding, “you ‘a blowin’ my mind!”), The Man’s men, on the one hand, as well as half-crazed Beast-like woodland creatures muttering incoherently, on the other (the rants of these muddied, bearded man’s-men-gone-wrong sound pretty identical in each film). Both types are warnings: what these girls could be. Security must be taken, for each, in private enchantments. Wendy’s full name, Wendy Carroll, even seems to invoke two pillars of children’s literature, from Peter Pan and Wonderland.
But mostly, Wendy and Lucy is an elegy to corporatized America. When (spoiler alert) Wendy finally finds her dog in a backyard fence, there’s no doubt Wendy is staring at a totally symbolic, potential future in well-delineated (fenced-in) bourgeois safety, that the dog now has, as she’s left to face the exact same decision faced at the end of last year’s urban-version of Wendy, Gone Baby Gone. More miserable than any of Wendy’s bad luck is all that’s hinted at in the back-stories of peripheral side-characters; there’s no sadder line than the security guard, working 12-hour shifts standing in uniform in front of a customer-less Walmart, telling Wendy, in that peculiarly American mix of resignation and resilience that's implicit in everything she does too, that “well, it’s better than my last job, I’ll tell you that!” Wendy’s story is not meant as a frustrating Greek tragedy of one woman’s fate, fated for the sake of fate, but the story of an everygirl’s fate. The immediate point of comparison isn’t fairy tales, but Umberto D.: oppressed, homeless migrant, wandering around society without self-pity or anyone else’s, with a dog for companion, the only thing that devotes its life to actually caring. Both films, like so many fairy tales, are to be taken as the story of just about anyone.


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