March 13, 2009

Looking For A Little Cash, A Little Optimism

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Life is hard. Making money is hard. Being on your own is hard. Recently, these messages have been ingrained into our brains from every media outlet and from all our friends that suddenly decided to forgo a financial career and take a stab at the LSATs. Therefore, it is difficult to sit through another movie that reiterates how depressing life can be without monetary resources. No wonder people willingly gravitated towards the dazzling, though excessively impractical, Slumdog Millionaire this past year for a fantastical escape.
In director Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams plays Wendy Carroll, who plans to trek to Alaska from Indiana, à la Into the Wild female-style, but without the guts (figuratively and literally) or the conviction. Wendy drifts along her journey while sporting a dark tomboyish haircut with only about $600 in hand. When she gets sidetracked in a humble Oregon town, she sleeps in a beat-up old Honda, scrubs herself in gas station bathrooms and forages for discarded aluminum cans. Further hard luck descends when her car breaks down and she loses her one cohort, a dog named Lucy.
Wendy’s respite evolves into the timeless tale of an ordinary woman on the thresholds of poverty. Usually, it’s refreshing to stumble upon a movie whose characters are straightforward and unpretentious, but Wendy is so gloomily typical that she is someone that the audience automatically tries to and easily does forget. Every scene in the film is chromatically and emotionally blue. And everyone is worn-out, even the security guard (Walter Dalton) that shoos Wendy from the Walgreen’s parking lot seems exhausted just to utter the words. The only hint of animation is found in Lucy. And Lucy’s a dog.
The film follows a used formula, but it does have noticeable achievements, especially in its picturesque shots of landscapes both natural and man-made. The movie has some beautiful cinematography, and Reichardt’s meticulous attention to provincial detail is impeccable. The whirring of train wheels and the dancing of sunlight upon forest leaves rouses simple small-town American nostalgia and charm. However, the town is so realistically depicted that it also loses its specialness and consequently, the viewer’s interest.
Michelle Williams also delivers a tender performance, carrying the entire film on her petite shoulders, but her character’s reserved nature further amplifies the sad milieu. Nobody cares about Wendy, but she has just enough resilience that the audience realizes she will pull through, hence making her even more irrelevant and forgettable. The audience is also unaware of Wendy’s history or identity, and only when she loses Lucy does Wendy emote any true passion. Also, most of her misfortune is self-induced. When Wendy is apprehended for pilfering dog food, the audience both sympathizes with and condemns her, but after awhile one grows sick of her broken-record excuse of “I’m not from around here, I’m just passing through.”
Sometimes a movie can be simplistic to the extent where we must draw upon our own personal experiences and concerns to make sense of the film and bestow upon it its significance. Kelly Reichardt probably meant to capture the weariness and exasperation of average Americans, and she also succeeds in gracefully portraying the generosity of individuals constrained by their own financial woes. When the security guard discreetly hands Lucy some money as she resumes her pilgrimage to sacred Alaska, we may be fooled into thinking that the cash is substantial, but the movie’s enervated atmosphere has trained us to not be surprised when it is only a mere $7.
The few sweet moments in the movie are diluted by the bitterness of our own grim reality. In better days we might be able to show greater appreciation for Wendy and Lucy’s naturalistic minimalism. But right now we are tired of being tired and of continuing to placidly mull over America’s economic turmoil. We tend to want to superficially delude ourselves into believing that everything will be ok, or at least that we can somehow lift ourselves up from our funk. We yearn for an inspirational fire whose radiant blaze will blind and distract us, even if it’s only for a few hours. Wendy and Lucy is a modest spark that unfortunately has no room to shine amid the crumbling ruins of our current financial state.