I watched Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy last year, via a DVD screener I received during the run-up to awards season.
Michelle Williams turns in an interesting, somewhat layered performance as Wendy, a luckless young woman wandering through the Pacific Northwest, pinning her hopes on a job in Alaska, a destination that she may or may not ever reach. Her companion for most of her journey is Lucy, her loyal and lovable honey-colored mutt.
Wendy meets a few people, and only one of them, a security guard, is really sympathetic. She encounters a dangerous drifter, is arrested for shoplifting, and spends a lot of time looking for her dog.
Yes, Wendy and Lucy (now available on DVD) offers timely commentary on what it’s like to be lost in America, without an economic safety net. And just about now there are quite a few more of those folks, unemployed and desperate, than there were just a few months ago.
But, on the whole, Williams’ work is so subtly shaded that it barely exists – there’s almost no there there — and very little of interest occurs during a movie that moves at the speed of mud.
Not that that’s always a bad thing. Still, in this case, less is less. Aside from wanting to show support for the messages — explicit and implicit — of Wendy and Lucy, I’m not quite sure what led critics to go gaga over the film.
Reichardt leaves us wanting more, but that’s because she didn’t offer enough substance in the first place.
I’d forgotten that Reichardt, who teaches filmmaking at Bard College (read the Washington Post profile on her here) when she isn’t making movies, had previously helmed Old Joy. That’s primarily because I missed seeing the latter film when it was released in 2006.
I made up for that oversight recently, catching up with Old Joy on IFC. I’m glad I did – It’s a refreshing film that strikes me as far superior to its overrated successor.
There are similarities: Both Reichardt’s second and third features were shot in and around Portland, Oregon, and both are based on short stories by Jonathan Raymond, who lives there. Raymond and Reichardt co-wrote the scripts for both movies. And, oh yeah, the director put her dog Lucy in both films.
Old Joy, though, is at least about a few things, I think – the evolution of a friendship; and a journey, to a place and back, shared by people who no longer travel together.
It also has something to say about the natural death of youthful idealism, and the loss of a way of life — a permanent Kerouacian road trip — that never quite sustained life in the first place. For better and worse, home always seems to trump wanderlust.
The thirtysomething friends are bearded, balding, philosophizing Kurt (musician Will Oldham), who’s just back in town after another jaunt around the country, including a stop on the beach at Big Sur, where he jumped around bonfires and danced all night with pretty girls.
Kurt, practically living out of his van and sleeping where he can, contacts old pal Mark (Daniel London), lanky and reticent, and now settled down with Tanya (Tanya Smith), who’s expecting their first child. Mark is concerned about how he and his beloved are going to be able to stretch their time — and, presumably, their finances — to accommodate a new life. But he’s confident that it will all work out.
The road warrior entices his friend into a quick trip into the Cascade Mountains, in search of an elusive hot springs that Kurt once visited. Reichardt effectively captures that feeling of decompression, and unplugging from the world, as the buddies, and Mark’s dog Lucy, head off into the wilderness. They’re all packed into his Volvo station wagon, traditionally a shorthand signifier of liberal yuppiehood, but it’s unclear here — despite the presence of that vehicle, Mark and Tanya may or may not be facing economic struggles of their own.
On the way, the guys chat a bit and listen to radio talkers on the ill-fated Air America natter on about their hatred of George Bush (this is Portland, remember). Eventually, even that noise disappears.
Finally in the woods, they begin to get lost, and the soundtrack — beautifully conceived and played by indie rock darlings Yo La Tengo — offers up ghostly piano notes. In another type of movie, here’s where the protagonists would wander into the valley of the shadow of horror.
But the sole terror they experience is of the spiritual type, and it’s more melancholy than frightening. Late that night, over a campfire at a site cluttered with discarded furniture and other garbage, Kurt, making sounds of physical suffering, confesses his feelings that something terrible has destroyed their friendship.
“I miss you Mark. I want us to be friends again,” says Kurt, who goes on to suggest that the damage can’t be fixed. Mark gently disagrees, without demonstrating much conviction in his own words. Both seem to know that Kurt has told the truth.
Who hasn’t experienced an awkward moment like that one? And can a friendship be repaired when both parties have become strangers to one another, when the formerly convergent paths of both have so wildly diverged?
Kurt also talks about his recent study of physics, and has things to say about chaos and order, relating his understanding of the subject to a view of the woods, from below and then from above the tree line.
“Sometimes things look like they don’t have any order and then from a different level you realize that it does have order,” he says. “It all, like comes together. You see that it has a shape, after all. Sometimes it takes a long time to get high enough to see it, but it’s there.”
No, that’s not just the pot pipe talking. Kurt could be talking about the way that he believes his life is viewed by Mark, and others. Or maybe the footloose guy sees the married guy’s life as more ordered and planned out than, in reality, it is.
Or perhaps this is the million-mile view of the lives of the two men, and of all of us. Looks random, but isn’t (my belief). Alternate view: Looks ordered, but is really random.
The two, reacquainted but probably wondering if their renewed friendship will last past the weekend, the next day head to their destination, the Bagby Hot Springs, near Mt. Hood. There, they bathe naked in the healing waters, drink beer, watch Lucy frolic in the rocks and stream, and talk some more. Kurt gives Mark a neck message, which, by most indications, is given and received as a distinctly non-sexual act (some other viewers have suggested otherwise).
Cinematographer Peter Sillen, lets his camera linger on the ancient wood and flowing waters of the lush forest, and the soundtrack comes alive with the sounds of nature — birds chirping, the movement of animals in the near distance, wind blowing through vegetation.
And then, just like in real life, it’s all over, and the two are back in the Volvo, headed out of the woods, into the city, the radio coming back to life again with more endless, pointless chatter.
Kurt (it can’t be coincidental that he shares a first name with the late Nirvana singer) is off to wander the city streets. And Mark returns to hearth and home, to a life that’s perhaps more planned out than the one he once had in mind.
Reichardt’s film, appropriately enough, celebrates old joys — friendship, nature, the rewards of a shared journey — without forcing viewers into pat conclusions, or unleashing dramatic revelations or contriving to create overtly emotional upheavals or violent outbursts.
Instead, these small gestures add up to a drama that’s quietly moving and, in its own way, deeply joyful.
Old Joy is available on video. The extras, according to a DVD review posted at DVTtalk.com:
“The main attraction here is a commentary track featuring Reichardt, alongside Sillen and filmmaker Michael Almereyda, who functions as a laid-back moderator; the trio discusses the genesis of the project, bits of trivia about the production and what drew Reichardt to the material. There are a few dead patches, but it’s an overall worthwhile listen. Also on board is the film’s theatrical trailer and a gallery of production stills.”