The Unraveling 

Celebrated indie Wendy and Lucy tracks an unsteady life on America's margins.

Wendy and Lucy opens with iconic American images of desolation: a rusting railyard, drifters huddled around a campfire. But it's quickly apparent that this is no Dust Bowl period piece. One young man raving in the dark has facial tattoos discernible through the flickering flames. A young woman has multiple piercings. And the pixie-ish protagonist here — a woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams) en route from her Indiana home to seek work at an Alaskan fishery — didn't arrive as an unwanted passenger on the trains we see in the opening credits. She and her dog, Lucy, are traveling in a beat-up 1988 Honda Accord.

The second widely seen film from director Kelly Reichardt (following 2006's Old Joy, which screened at the Indie Memphis Film Festival that year), Wendy and Lucy was made before the economy really took a nosedive, but that sense of financial unease is in its bones, perhaps inspired as much by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in its feel for how easy it is for people already at the margins to have their lives unravel.

At only 80 minutes, Wendy and Lucy — which was named the best film of 2008 in movie magazine Film Comment's annual critics poll — is as wispy and fragile as its protagonist. And though the film seems to take place over several days, the intimacy, naturalism, and moment-by-moment detail make it feel like it's happening in real time.

The film finds Wendy and Lucy stopping in a rundown Oregon mill town, where they sleep in the car at night in a Walgreens parking lot. The next day, the car won't start. And though there's a garage across the street, the prospect of needed repairs threatens Wendy's dwindling cash supplies — her budget and expenditures painstakingly detailed in a notebook — enough to provoke Wendy into a seemingly minor risk that has major consequences: separating her from Lucy.

The film also subtly suggests how modern convenience can become a burden for those slipping through the widening cracks in the system — the need for a credit or debit card to pay for something or a cell phone to make a call.

"You can't get an address without an address. You can't get a job without a job," a security guard who befriends Wendy complains. "It's all rigged."

By slowing things down and focusing this simple story so intensely (including evocative shots of mundane, concrete images like a car engine, supermarket produce aisle, rows of cages at an animal shelter), Reichardt makes you feel Wendy's plight intently. The film's naturalism and fragility are rare for modern American films, even of the indie variety, evoking foreign references like Belgium's Dardennes brothers (Rosetta, L'Enfant) or classic Italian neorealism.

Wendy and Lucy is about how the seemingly smallest, unexpected expense can ruin someone without much financial breathing room. If Wendy's story at first seems unfamiliar, the movie's settings — parking lots, grocery stores, animal shelters, an Exxon bathroom where Wendy washes and changes — and the internal logic of its bare plot bring it home. With an increasingly thin string holding so many lives together, this story could be a parable for many middle-class lives affected by job loss or health-care costs or any number of hardships. These days, Wendy and Lucy suggests, we're barely getting by. And lots of people are operating without much of a safety net.

Wendy and Lucy

Opens Friday, February 20th

Studio on the Square

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