The affecting, minimalist film Wendy and Lucy proves that small-town dramas aren't dead, but small towns, at least in the Mellencamp-idealist sense, are. What used to be considered 'smallâ?� has been recast as the boonies, replaced by sprawling 'burbs ruled by chain stores with stern policies that their minimum-wage, be-lucky-you-have-a-job workers are intimidated into enforcing. And there's a mountain of space between the two.
Those policies, like 'Shoplifters will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,â?� may not register as more than an eye-rolling joke to most. But they can mean the difference between getting by and a nightmare for people like Wendy Carroll. Played to naturalistic perfection by Williams, Wendy and her dog, Lucy, walk the people movers of societal purgatory; they're homeless, but in a more cerebral sense than soup-kitchen patrons. They have family but not the kind that wants anything to do with them; they owned a car until it broke down; they have their health, but without an address they can't get work. They're in a no-man's-land that a director without Kelly Reichardt's ability would treat with simplistic pity.
Wendy and Lucy doesn't take the easy way out, however. It demonstrates how the same nuisances everyone else deals with, like the pricey add-ons to simple mechanical fixes that auto shops enjoy tacking on, result in a useless car for Wendy. It shows how red-tape paperwork at the local pound equals a new round of embarrassment.
These are the scenes that make up the majority of this refreshing look at modern human apathy, and that's all it takes to convey its subtle message. The rest of the time, the film is content simply to watch Williams process her state of being, with every up and down absorbed by her tightly coiled body, digested and ejected from her piercing eyes. She wears a face that John Cassavetes would rise from the grave for a chance to put on film, guileless before the camera but possessed of a firm grasp on life's daily bob and weave.
Since her stint on Dawson's Creek, Williams has grown steadily as a genuine thespian force with promising roles in movies otherwise distracted by Oscar-baiting lead performances, as in The Station Agent, Brokeback Mountain and Synecdoche, New York. With Wendy and Lucy, however, she can't be shoved to the side any longer. The actress was tragically thrown into the role of 'Heath Ledger's widow,â?� and there's a moment in this film where her character comes face-to-face with a rack of tabloids and pauses, almost as if she's noticed her own face on one of them. One can't help but hope it isn't a message. She recently told Newsweek that she would consider quitting acting in order to keep her daughter away from the flashing cameras; after seeing this film, I hope that never happens.