And along comes a movie to make my last point better than I could possibly express: Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. It may be the feel-bad movie of the year — I knew it would be sad and I often shy away from such films in favor of entertainment — but it was beautiful, terrifying and real. Wendy (Michelle Williams) spends the whole film close to disaster, financial, physical, emotional, but it is everyday, non-fabulist disaster. The disaster of having bad luck, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of having nothing to fall back on. The cruelest moment in the film may be when the teenage supermarket employee (later picked up by his mom in a Volvo station wagon) says, “People who can’t afford dog food shouldn’t have a dog.” At that moment you realize all Wendy has is her dog, Lucy, and that she already knows she can’t afford her best friend. The rest of the movie devolves from that comment, but in unpredictable ways and with only the smallest (so small as to be possibly insulting) kindness.
The dullness and repetition also dramatize the physical limits for Wendy. She can’t get out of the town, she can’t even get out of the neighborhood, because she can only walk. Yes, she does take the bus a couple of times (and how often does that happen in movies not for dramatic effect), but you can feel how daunting it is to be given the directions “three miles down that road.” Williams’s natural thinness, usually a symbol of glamour and desirability, starts to look like weakness — she’s got no reserves. When she finally finds a way to move, you feel tremendous relief, but just for a moment, before you consider the new disasters ahead.