Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy focuses on a homeless woman (Wendy) and her dog (Lucy) as they get stuck in a struggling Oregon town on their way to Alaska. The film is truly a work of minimalism, featuring long sequences of nothing much happening as we follow Wendy (played with quiet power by Michelle Williams) around, and as someone with a tendency to space out, I’ll admit that the movie may demand a little extra effort from the viewer in terms of staying mentally “locked in” at all times. However, the effect of film’s minimalism is a strong one, creating a thick atmosphere of loneliness and emptiness that reflects what Wendy is feeling and seems true to what the homeless experience must be like.
Going to Alaska in hopes of finding work, Wendy is on a tight budget that is challenged when her car breaks down and she has to pay a fine after getting caught by an aggressively strict grocery store clerk trying to steal dog food. Real trouble comes when Lucy goes missing and Wendy finds herself without the companion that helped her to keep going in her alienated state. All other problems aside, Lucy was her connection to life, and Wendy suddenly feels more lost than ever.
On the idea of finding happiness in such a difficult state as homelessness, I have to hearken back to Sara’s excellent write-up on The Pursuit of Happyness. In that article, Sara made the great point that happiness is not directly tied to financial success. While that movie focused on monetary gain as the ticket to well-being, I think that Wendy and Lucy hits a more accurate mark in its portrayal of human compassion and connection as key to sustaining our happiness (or at least hope) in the midst of an often harsh and unsympathetic world. Allow me to explain.
As poignant as the bond between Wendy and Lucy is, there’s another relationship in the film that’s just as moving. As she waits for her car to be diagnosed by the local mechanic and searches for Lucy, Wendy is helped out by a Walmart security guard (played by Walter Dalton), whose small gestures of kindness mean a lot and remind us that such acts rarely seem as slight to those receiving them as they do to those performing them. Sometimes we all need a little help, and this isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a fundamental aspect of the human condition.
While Wendy doesn’t experience a whole lot of happiness in the film, her interactions with the security guard help her to press onward. The goal of financial security is put in the light that it should be: a utilitarian pursuit, necessary for comfortable living but not the most important factor in sustaining happiness. These truly important factors are seen in Wendy’s emotional connection to Lucy and the selfless assistance of the security guard. The film shows that human sustainability thrives on our ability to empathize with each other and extend compassion.