To describe the plot of "Wendy and Lucy" is to invite guffaws. Simply put – and there's no other way to put it – the film is about Wendy (Michelle Williams), a young drifter from Indiana who sets out for Alaska with her dog Lucy, loses her en route in Oregon when her car breaks down, and spends the rest of her time trying to find her.
Improbably, it's one of the most affecting films of the year, which once again demonstrates that all you need to make a good movie is talent.
I was not expecting the movie to be this good, since director Kelly Reichardt's overpraised previous film, "Old Joy," was an anomic snooze. But "Wendy and Lucy" captures like no other film the low-key despair of the vagrant's life in these hard-pressed times. Williams gives a performance that is so shorn of mannerism and theatricality that the effect is almost documentarylike. But make no mistake, we are watching a performance. Williams fully inhabits Wendy's moodscape. She captures the sullen fragility of someone who distrusts other people and yet relies on them to survive. Wariness and openness are writ equally large on her face.
This is one of the best movies ever made about how people bring their hearts and souls to bear on their pets. And it does so without a trace of sentimentality and special pleading. The emotional connection between Wendy and Lucy is a lot more nuanced than most movie portrayals of friendships between two-legged types. (Lucy is played by Reichardt's own dog, who also appeared in "Old Joy." This no doubt explains her terrific performance, which won last year's unofficial Palm Dog prize in Cannes.)
"Wendy and Lucy" is a road movie where much of the action takes place in one place. The road that looms before Wendy is a beckoning to a better life that she might never experience. We never learn much about the life Wendy has left, and this is as it should be. In a movie this understated, any sort of heavy-duty back story would seem jarringly out of place. We learn about Wendy from the company she keeps: not only Lucy but also strangers – a stockroom boy (John Robinson) who busts her for shoplifting, a security guard (Wally Dalton), an auto mechanic (Will Patton), a vagrant (Larry Fessenden). Like Wendy, these people carry an authenticity so unforced that "realism" seems like too heavy a term to describe it.
It takes a great deal of art to make a movie this artless. "Wendy and Lucy" is adapted from a short story by Jon Raymond, and it has the signal virtues of that form. It's a resonant little mood piece that packs a great deal into a small compass. Grade: A (Rated R for language.)