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I‘m going to put this out there right now: Kelly Reichardt is one of my top ten favorite filmmakers of all time, based merely on the three films I’ve seen. When I watched each of them, my first thought was, “I wish I could make movies like these.” As a once aspiring filmmaker, I found myself drawn to the showy styling of a director like Sam Raimi. But as I’ve gotten older and more contemplative, I would want to tell quiet, simple stories about real people. Both David Gordon Green and Kelly Reichardt seem to create characters and place them in worlds that feel familiar, and give a sense of peace. I remember vividly watching Wendy and Lucy with my family on Christmas Day, and, despite their restlessness, I was utterly transfixed and moved to the core.

This is not a typical “road movie,” but one that must be mentioned since it’s about stagnation while traveling. I once traveled for a month to the east coast playing small, intimate house shows. I brought along a notebook in which I kept track of my expenses, for I had just quit my crappy corporate job. I was never sure what I was walking into, but I always found someone who was willing to help out with a place to stay or a warm meal so I didn’t spend too much money. There is a moment where Wendy (Michelle Williams- giving my favorite performance of hers) counts out her money and writes down what she has in a notebook. It’s tough to separate personal experience from that of a character on screen with whom you identify. But honestly, I don’t always watch films with a critical eye. I watch them in hopes of connecting in an attempt to feel less alone, or to understand humanity as a whole. Because I know what it’s like to be broke, and to have a strong attachment to a pet, I can say Wendy and Lucy is one of the better examples of this type of experience.

It is based on a short story by one of my favorite authors, Jon Raymond. The short story is titled “Train Song,” and, aside from Wendy’s humming, the only thing that could qualify as a score would be the sound of freight trains swooping in and out. Wendy is traveling to Alaska, and her car breaks down in Oregon. Then she loses her dog, Lucy. That’s the gist of its bare-bones plot. What happens throughout are moments of silent intimacy, whether it is with a passing vagrant or an incredibly generous security guard. Little interactions with townsfolk are prevalent but, once again, Reichardt chooses mood and nature as a focal point. Beyond the surface of difficult travel and poverty, there is certainly a lot to grasp in terms of context: the gap between rich and poor, deregulation, day-to-day survival, and the realization that to truly move on, one has to truly let go. One of the final lines of the film involves Wendy stating “I’ll try to make some money and come back.” But deep down, I anticipate her moving forward, having learned a lesson about being impoverished. Wendy has to keep traveling and let her past live on without her.

 

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This is such a hard movie for me to be objective about. There has never been a time when money isn’t a concern since I’ve yet to work a job that made me financially independent. And I’ve had pets that were such a source of strength for me; to lose them would cause me to lose my mind. Wendy internalizes a lot until a rather frightening moment that leaves her shaken and shattered. That’s the first of two times that this film moves me to tears: the recognition of panic and then the recognition of making the right decision instead of a decision I would truly want. As a road movie, Wendy and Lucy involves long stretches of train tracks which serve as a contrast to Wendy’s unreliable car. Once she can’t move on through her own volition, it turns into a series of events that ultimately ends on a beautiful note of resilience. Director Reichardt knows this landscape, whether she has traveled on the road extensively or not. She finds solace in strangers, and doesn’t shy away from possible danger. She paints a portrait of a town full of rundown shops and corner grocery stores, but allows a haven of forestry to serve as a sanctuary for the outsiders. A moment of dialogue between the security guard and Wendy really strikes me as a summation of what Reichardt finds interesting about small town life. “What do people do here all day?” is Wendy’s response once she learns that there used to be an old mill, but now jobs are scarce. Financial instability plagues so many in a variety of ways — from those who have trouble managing their finances despite income, to those who live on the street and manage to survive despite dire straits. Ultimately, this is a story about a courageous, flawed individual and her dog. Lucy is a friend she can depend on as a source of comfort and companionship. Once her friend and her finances dissipate, where is there left to go but onward in hopes of something better?

What makes Wendy and Lucy one of my all-time favorites is the essence of its simplicity. It’s ultimately a sad story, but showcases how people adapt despite limited resources. The outline for Wendy and Lucy came courtesy of the director’s personal experience as well as her feelings about what entailed after Hurricane Katrina. Everyone is used to living in their own little world, but after a tragedy, whether big or small, we have to interact with others. Usually it’s for better or for worse, so we have to come to terms with personal setbacks. Traveling by car can feel like an enclosed little bubble that feels safe, but what happens when that car breaks down? That’s why this is a special entry as a  road film, despite the fact that the road closes in on Wendy. To a small degree, Wendy and Lucy showcases how a small American town’s economic strife affects the bonds that tie a society together. But this film approaches that idea as a microcosm. Very few filmmakers hit me the way Reichardt does with her immediacy and realism. Wendy and Lucy starts out as a film about moving towards something greater, but life won’t always allow for that due to circumstance. As someone who traveled by car with very little money, I saw this situation as an extension of something that could have happened, especially if I was traveling with my cat, Lucy. In the end, I can honestly say Wendy and Lucy is one of the best films I’ve ever seen without calling attention to itself. It exists, just like life, in a very pure and personal way that I think makes it a classic in its own right.

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