As income inequality continues to grow and poverty continues to be demonized by the powerful, Wendy and Lucy not only feels more poignant but essential.
In 2008, homelessness became a much more realistic threat for many Americans, as an era of rampant foreclosures, spikes in unemployment and a tanking economy meant one wrong move or one bad break could reap dire consequences. That same year, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy painted a timely portrait of a young woman living on the fringe after setting off from her native Indiana for the vague prospect of fish-cannery work in Alaska—a minimalist film that nevertheless encapsulated the broad impact of economic inequality.
We never learn if Wendy (Michelle Williams) is on the run from her past or simply setting out in hopes of a brighter future, but we find her in a spot where only her present situation matters. When her car breaks down in an industrial Oregon town, Wendy’s misfortunes quickly snowball. Traveling with only a few hundred dollars tucked away in a moneybag strapped to her torso, and with her dog, Lucy, as her only companion, Wendy attempts to shoplift a few cans of dog food. An overzealous supermarket stock boy (John Robinson) apprehends her, and after the authorities are called, Wendy spends most of the day being processed at the local jail. When she returns to the post where she’d tied Lucy’s leash, the dog is gone.
Along the way, Wendy gets a little help from a kindly Walgreens security guard (Wally Dalton), but mostly she’s alone in her pursuit of finding Lucy. After shelling out money for the shoplifting fine, Wendy consults a local mechanic (Will Patton) for what she hopes is just a cracked serpentine belt, but she learns that her 20-year-old Honda’s engine is shot and she’ll have to pay just to haul the vehicle to the junk heap. By this point, Wendy must resort to a gas station restroom to wash herself, and one night she even sleeps on a piece of cardboard in the woods. Williams movingly plays Wendy with a mix of determination and despair. She insistently checks in with the pound to see if her dog has turned up, and she keeps her mounting frustrations at her increasingly grim situation largely in check, only boiling over in a few key moments. In this way, Wendy is emblematic of so many other disadvantaged people over the last decade who have exerted every effort to better their situations, only to encounter a surging wave of obstacles that could otherwise be overcome with access to just a little more money.
Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond began working on the script after hearing conservative pundits berate the poor following Hurricane Katrina. This mentality—that wealth equals merit and that poverty is the result of a moral failing—is best conveyed in the film by the supermarket stock clerk, who bluntly declares, “If a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog.” It’s this kind of cruelty-disguised-as-pragmatism that has led to wealthy politicians snipping away at the social safety net, efforts that boil down to a logic that poor people don’t deserve security, comfort, or joy. Ultimately, Wendy makes a similar decision, as she opts to leave Lucy at the foster home where she finally finds her, one that’s equipped with a big back yard and no uncertainty about where the next meal will come from.
As for herself, Wendy hops onto a boxcar and heads toward an uncertain future. Her predicament is one in which only a few hundred extra dollars could ultimately mean the difference between life and death. Reichardt reflects the precariousness of Wendy’s life on the edge by often positioning Williams off-center, pushed to one side of the frame. The director’s use of long takes, often of Wendy simply walking from one destination to another, demonstrates how each action is made far more arduous without the money to pay for modern conveniences. And by including no score, other than the occasional meandering humming by Wendy—which demonstrates a certain resiliency and hopefulness even in the face of abject poverty—Reichardt further imbues the film with bleak realism.
Reichardt doesn’t drench her film in overt social critique, instead offering a nuanced slice-of-life look into one young woman’s struggle to keep her head above water. But 10 years later, as income inequality continues to grow and poverty continues to be demonized by the powerful, Wendy and Lucy not only feels more poignant but essential.