Michelle Williams turns in remarkable performance in ‘Wendy and Lucy’

Woman loses dog.

If you’re a bottom-line kind of person, the aforementioned sentence is essentially the bare-bones plot of “Wendy and Lucy.” That slender narrative, however, offers more than enough space on which to build a singularly haunting tale of desperation, resilience and sacrifice. In short, this low-budget indie says more about the human condition than do most self-professed “big message” pictures.

The film screens 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 5:30 and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday through April 5 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Moviegoers would do well to catch this gem while they have the chance.

Michelle Williams (“Synecdoche, New York”) is Wendy Carroll, a 20-something woman driving from Indiana to Ketchikan, Ala., in search of work. She is jobless, destitute and, with the notable exception of a beloved Labrador named Lucy, alone. No backstory on Wendy is offered; we don’t know why she is in dire financial straits, or why she has settled on Alaska. But Williams’ subtle, intelligent performance conveys everything we need to know about the woman’s quiet strength and capacity for endurance.

BREAK DOWN
That capacity is tested when her car breaks down in a Portland, Ore., suburb. Hoping to save what little cash she has but needing to feed Lucy, she shoplifts a can of Iams from a supermarket and an annoyingly self-righteous clerk catches her. “The rules apply to everyone equally,” he proclaims. “Food is not the issue; it’s about setting an example.” And so Wendy is briefly jailed. When she gets out, Lucy, who had been leashed outside the store, is nowhere to be found.

One of the most rewarding aspects of indie films in general is their ability to maneuver into the orbits of people whose lives don’t typically get big-screen treatment. “Wendy and Lucy” probes the outer margins of society, where people sleep in cars and are one circumstance away from financial disaster ” a world that feels all too close at hand given the current recession. “You can’t get an address without an address, you can’t get a job without a job,” a security guard tells Wendy. “It’s all fixed.”

Calamity follows calamity, and yet “Wendy and Lucy,” miraculously, is not entirely bleak. Director Kelly Reichardt, who co-wrote the script with Jonathan Raymond, depicts a universe that isn’t cruel so much as it is indifferent. Wendy benefits from small kindnesses, but they cannot quite compensate for the hard facts of poverty.

Shot in 18 days for a meager $300,000, “Wendy and Lucy” is a triumph of no-frills filmmaking. Reichardt keeps things spare and succinct, eschewing even a musical score. She adheres to the edict that cinema is essentially about action and reaction, not talk. There isn’t much gab in the film, but the silences speak volumes.

At its center is an outstanding performance by Williams. She dials down her movie-star looks here with a close-cropped bob and shabby clothes, but the portrayal isn’t of the starlet-makes-herself-frumpy-to-be-taken-seriously variety. Like everything else in the film, she delves into an interpretation that is stoic, stripped-down and unfailingly right.”Phil Bacharach

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Phil Bacharach

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