Not all films have to be the cinematic equivalents of novels, hulking celluloid tomes tipping the three-hour mark, so distended they should be fatted with an intermission. Some are poems. Two years ago, “Old Joy,“ a film meager in budget and a mere 76 minutes long, emerged, like the two reacquainted buddies and protagonists who spend a weekend in the Oregon woods, as a thoughtful meditation on friendship renewed, reviewed and ultimately reconciled as something lost from the kinship of youth. It cleverly steered clear of pretentiousness when insufferableness seemed unavoidable. Kelly Reichardt, the director of the resonant “Old Joy,” has returned with “Wendy and Lucy,” a movie chronicling the plight of a young woman ensnared in spiraling circumstances. But regrettably, the new, slight film is a vague and incomplete cinematic missive; Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond have scripted a haiku of 16 syllables.
A rapid cross-country trip shown in the pages of her journal has brought Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog, Lucy, westward from Fort Wayne, Indiana to the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. As we are introduced to them, Wendy and Lucy walk through a clearing at night where they chance upon a few folks huddled round a campfire. The quiet and reserved Wendy tells a camper that she’s on her way to Ketchikan for work, and a wild-eyed dude (Will Oldham) overhears and delivers a rambling, delinquent story about his escapades in Alaska. So we know where she’s come from and where she’s headed, but the 20-something Wendy herself is a mystery. In the subsequent 80 minutes, as events become more harrowing, the taciturn Wendy provides precious few tangible glimpses into her state of mind or her reasoning. There’s the barest acknowledgment of her past other than the one pay-phone call she makes to an uninspiring father and disinterested mother. Williams, an actress of mounting reputation, is a perceptive performer, adopting an unfeigned, haunted countenance and a Joan of Arctic Circle haircut, but even she can only say so much with her eyes.
In his essay on the works of a mercurial filmmaker, “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace writes,
“When his characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to cut the distance and detachment that can keep Lynch’s films at arm’s length, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier — we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves.”
In “Wendy and Lucy,” when the wrenching moments occur, I experienced an indifferent sensation, based, I’m assuming, on my tuning out because Wendy’s character provided me with so little insight. I had become disconnected. The film is disquiet inhabited and the distillation of loneliness, but instead of gaining insight into these concepts, I simply felt ground down and uninvolved. Films steeped with bleak themes can be difficult to watch but they don‘t have to be obtuse. The abundantly talented director Ramin Bahrani has recently chronicled merciless quotidian working class lives in New York City in the films “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop” where fate conspires, sometimes unfathomably cruelly, against characters but there’s history, detail and humanity to these people so that the predicaments have context even when they are heartbreaking.
Reichardt has an evocative filming style, and she certainly attempts to utilize the un-said to speak volumes, a device more successfully employed in her previous film. But it can be asserted that the silence is only poignant in a narrative film (Spaghetti Westerns excluded) if it supplements the dialogue; from a story telling perspective, we cannot be expected to contend that what is left in the margins is more poignant than what is in the script. Compared to “Wendy and Lucy,“ the subdued storytelling of the far superior “Old Joy” is an overbearing party guest of exposition. To paraphrase the poet Stevie Smith, Wendy is not waving, nor is she drowning; indeed, her hand might be telling us very little at all.