2008. Starring Michelle Williams. Directed by Kelly Reichardt.
Summer is the time of blockbusters — screen-filling spectacles of ‘splosions and sequels. The fantastic and futuristic epics that challenge the stabilizing structures of logic while we suspend our disbelief. Reinterpretation of familiar narratives and remakes of films that were better in their first iteration.
But once in a while, you are reminded that there is drama in everyday life, and a story that will break your heart behind every person with a downcast face you pass on the street. That’s why we need the blockbusters and explosions. There is just too much real pain to witness while we’re struggling to carry on with our own, and we need distraction.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) is carrying her particular burden from Indiana to Alaska, and is accompanied by her loyal pal, Lucy, a golden dog with a “friendly face” who shares her woes. Wendy is hoping to find work at a fish cannery, and is rationing her meager savings to get there, sleeping in her car and bathing in gas-station bathrooms. But when her ’88 Accord breaks down in Oregon, and Lucy goes missing, Wendy faces disaster on a personal level.
There are really two themes to this simple and incredibly sad film: one, that when you’re poor and alone, you are very vulnerable, while disaster awaits any wrong step; and two, the default approach we take to each other is distrust and defensiveness, even as our natural empathy battles to reach out to another human being in need.
There’s that word, empathy, that’s actually been a matter of debate this summer. As if people shouldn’t be empathetic to each other; as if there is a basis for such a debate. Without empathy, what stops my neighbor for killing me for what’s in my pocket? What stops me from laughing at someone else’s pain and suffering? It seems strange, but there is an actual debate in society whether we should act like psychopaths. (Maybe with this question in mind, the cruelest, least-empathetic character in Wendy and Lucy wears a large crucifix as a sign of moral superiority.)
Michelle Williams is remarkable as Wendy, determined but weary from walking everywhere on her skinny legs, self-reliant but clearly at the end of her rope. A phone call that she makes to her sister, just “to call” but met with suspicion, is heartbreaking. The voice at the other end of the line just wants to hear that everything’s OK, even though it’s clear that things are far from it.
Although there are few details in the story to tell you what brought Wendy and Lucy to this point, I really felt for Wendy, who is hesitant to accept kindness from others, wary of being in their debt. And I feel for Lucy, whining and unable to understand when the dog food bag is empty. As much as I’d like to help the characters, I realize that many real people are in similar situations or worse, and I probably have walked by them, distrustful and defensive. That’s what a tough old world with a limited amount of empathy will do to you.