The worn-out phrase slice of life has come to accurately describe an inordinate amount of films coming out of the American independent scene lately. From Ballast to Chop Shop, Frozen River to The Wrestler, and here now with Wendy and Lucy, a kind of reductive naturalism has caught fire, resting its gaze upon people and places on the fringe of American society with nary a plot or aesthetic agenda to justify its output. These films are reminiscent in part of their European counterparts, in style the Dogme movement, in spirit the social dramas of Mike Leigh and the Dardennes brothers, but like most things American they feel born anew. Not even Van Sant’s latest works feel akin to this shift, for at least in them there is an emphasis on identifiable cultural events or pronounced metaphoric significance (in the case of Gerry), to find lineage one would perhaps have to go back to films like Two-Lane Blacktop or Killer of Sheep, guileless projects that set out to be plain about their subjects.
In a film like Wendy and Lucy not even the label verité realism aptly captures just how reductive its ambitions are: there is little sense of production or editorial motivation, you are left with nothing to grab hold of critically, the analytical mind feels stymied. The story operates in the spaces usually cut out in transitions: the maneuvering from point to point, bus rides and walking, the idleness of a day in waiting. Things occasionally happen to our heroine, Wendy, a down-on-her-luck waif stranded in Oregon, and her canine companion, Lucy, but to rely on these happenings for meaning is to kind of miss what is so special about this film.
The point rather is the make of her car, the grass tufts breaking through the sidewalk, the back alleys, the outdated vending machines, the sterile rooms, the collective disinterest of strangers, and the scent of an Oregon morning. Attempts are made to wean subtext out of it in lieu of the economic downturn in America, with Wendy as the embodiment of our potential comeuppance, being one rung away from hopelessness. While there is certainly that voyeur aspect to the film, I feel its spirit is far more literal, nearly zen-like: to accept Wendy for who she is and appears to be, in situations which represent nothing other than the convergence of differing agendas all playing out as they would were no camera poised.
The fundamentals of strong character development are worn away from the listless exhaustion of Wendy as she internalizes her many defeats. Having finally seen the film, I am surprised by the Oscar buzz for Michelle Williams’ performance as Wendy as it is such a thankless role, offering very little by way of visible emoting. Not so much guarded as hollowed out, Wendy appears to sleepwalk through much of the film, rarely experiencing her emotions, as if they happen unconsciously in delay, outside of her.
A film like Wendy and Lucy has that sort of disposable grandeur of being immediate and uncluttered, like a well-crafted haiku. Maybe its not the prose you obsess about writing yourself one day, or the earmarked literature of the cafe, but it fills a space just the same. Here is Wendy and there she goes, and you feel like maybe you dreamt her, that this production was as effortless as a daydream. Sometimes the void and the mundane are deliberate and substantial. Perhaps one does not like or admire such a film, nor need it be the point – just be with it before it disappears. And that would be enough. That is what it’s for.
Wendy and Lucy succeeds in a way contrary to typical expectations of how a film normally succeeds, or at least how I perceive typical expectations to be. There is a tendency to over-emphasize the commodity aspect of a film and this occurs not just with blockbusters but even with the niche value of art films (is it something we would like to own and rewatch, and only secondarily is it innately valuable in the moment). I think it is very easy to gloss over the potential of a film like this because of how divorced from the usual qualifiers it is, not just reactive in a typical art house kind of way but denying any of its usual flourishes either (even verité realism aspires to be a fly on the wall with handheld cameras, but this is conventionally framed and shot).
Wendy and Lucy and this trend of reductive cinema pushes the envelope denying you the usual attachments, and instead giving you pared down reality, resisting even gritty reality, but neither being dogmatic in a dogme sort of way about the exercise, fighting against all framing devices of meaning, until what is left is just being. You either engage with that ‘just being’ or you are bored to death, but it is not going to spoon feed you why its there, what its doing. Its not going to pander for your rating. Its not going to aspire for posterity. Its just going to exist as long as the film exists. Even Van Sant’s prolonged Gerry is pushing for something else, something transcendent, but I think Wendy and Lucy is ultimately about something terrestrial, plainly, a girl and her dog.