Wendy and Lucy seems right out of the neo-realist movement, even with little press or attention, the comparisons between it and De Sica’s Umberto D have been noted on several occasions. The plot and style is similar, but it’s really the empathy for society’s down-trodden that cements the link between time. Wendy is a young woman on her way to Alaska who has just several hundred dollars, and her dog. Stopping through a small town, her car breaks down, she’s arrested and she loses her dog, Lucy. The film is understated and heartbreaking, showcasing Michelle Williams in what may be the performance of the year.
The film’s understated style adds a wonderful naturalism to the story, anchoring what could potentially be an overwrought film about poverty in modern American life, into a sincere portrait of a woman just trying to survive. The film’s minimalist approach makes Michelle William’s face the canvas for emotion, most takes are long, extended close-ups, gauging her reaction for the small tragedies that befall her.
Wendy and Lucy paints a bleak portrait of American life, one that has more closed doors than open ones. Without a home or a phone, there is no way for Wendy to get a job, and as a lone friend (a security guard muses), without a job it’s impossible to find a job. Amidst a current economic crisis, it’s not difficult to imagine how many lost souls like Wendy are wandering the country looking for work. Reaching to Alaska as an opportunity because they “need people”. The film is more than just about economic hardships, but the emotional and psychological effects of being a societal outcast. Time and time again, Wendy finds herself meeting a wall, or a closed door. There is little empathy for people like her, and even when there is some tenderness, it hardly softens the blow of her hopelessness.
It’s difficult to express how lonely and unhappy Wendy must be, especially once she loses Lucy, her only real friend. There is no judgement from her dog, and Lucy’s dependence makes Wendy feel needed in a world that seems to want her to just disappear. There are some puzzling interactions, notably that with a young man who insists she needs to be punished for shop-lifting, to be made an example of. The manager seems reluctant, feeling the desperation of the situation, but the young man is adamant that she shouldn’t be allowed to walk away scot-free. His insistence is cold and angry, and his actions almost violent. One wonders why he is so adamant about enforcing justice. Later than night, young people laugh about her sleeping in a car, they themselves wandering through the darkness.
This film, along with Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, may be the two most revealing and honest films to come out of this year about those that fall beyond the status quo. They’re understated and undeniably tragic, though in their own way champion the human spirit. Both finish in a climatic forced decision, and end in a sacrifice of themselves, be it their body or happiness. These are the films that people will look back on in years to come as the true reflections of 21st century art and life.