Remember the utter destitution of Old Joy's final scene, Will Oldham ejected from a deep, but expired and uncomfortable friendship into the unforgiving city streets of Portland at night? Such complete forlornness, hinting at an utterly lost homelessness at the far end of a life prematurely derailed, is picked up again in a different way by director Kelly Reichardt in Wendy and Lucy. The two girls of the title are Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy, living out of a car and headed to Alaska for unclear visions of better times. Sullen, lonely, and pragmatic, Wendy gives little explanation beyond poverty and an impoverished family for her trek. When she is waylaid in a small Oregon town, the reason for her trip is quickly subsumed by a test to her solitary fortitude, debilitating isolation, and inner peace when first her car breaks down and then Lucy goes missing.
Giving quiet, but pointed consideration to the cinematically ignored economic anguish and wistful unhappiness of one end of American life, Wendy and Lucy's full attention is devoted to a group of resolutely small town citizens, ranging from the warm and kindly, somewhat distanced concern of a parking lot guard (Wally Dalton), to a kind of post-hippie rudeness of the local mechanic, and the more mysterious and cryptically eccentric range of equally lost young adults, inhabiting the Oregon woods and night talking of far off job possibilities (Wendy, like a Depression heroine, speaking of Alaska instead of California: "I hear they need people there.") and the pain and anger caused by social rejection and invisibility.
These persons all reflect Wendy's turmoil, echoing it, prompting it, or showing darker paths in an unknown future, but they are on the sidelines of the film, which sticks with patient and profound sympathy to Michelle William's incredible performance as Wendy. Wendy's self-sufficient routine has a introverted, bitter stability, but her deep reliance on Lucy as the sole discernible human, emotional, and tender existence in her life predictably, but movingly brings Wendy to a frazzled crisis. Suddenly her limited, but workable world of poverty and isolation breaks down and she finds herself open to the harshness of a world as unhappy as she is, but for the most part far less vulnerable. Will Oldham's childish, nostalgic, and lyrical hummed theme for Wendy and her dog neatly encapsulates the film, which attacks a simple, sad theme with an exemplary, but modest cast and crew, who bring a powerfully sympathetic approach. The sadness is natural, and therefore all the more sad, and it takes a patience, a kindness, and a calm to bring an inner life, however painful, to such a film.