DVD Release Date:  May 19, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  December 10, 2008 (limited)
Rating:  R (for language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  80 min.
Director:  Kelly Reichardt
Actors:  Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton, Will Oldham
 
Think you’ve got it tough?  Well, meet Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams). 

She’s traveling from Indiana to Alaska in her beat-up old Honda, counting every penny.  Wendy stops one day in a small Oregon town to walk her dog, Lucy.  After the sun sets, she comes across a group of homeless people of her age.  Their teeth are decaying and their clothes are filthy and tattered, but they’re friendly.  One tells Wendy that he worked at the fish cannery where she hopes to find work, and gives her the name of the boss along with a few tips.

She thanks him, heads into town and beds down for the night in her car, which she parks on the lot of a Wal-Mart style store.  The next morning, she is awoken by a security guard (Walter Dalton) who is tapping on the window.  He informs Wendy that she can’t stay on the lot.  Sorry, it’s the rules.  She nods and sleepily inserts her key into the ignition, but the car won’t start.  The security guard helps her push it onto the street then directs Wendy to a nearby garage—which is closed—and a grocery store.

That’s when she makes her big mistake.  She steals a can of dog food and is caught by a zealous teenage stock boy.  He turns Wendy into the store manager and insists that she be an example.  “But I’m not from here,” Wendy says.  “I can’t be an example to anyone.”  The rules are the rules, insists the teen (who just happens to be wearing a cross around his neck).  After a long hesitation, the manager agrees and allows the kid to call the cops, who cart Wendy off.

Later that day, after paying a $50 fine, Wendy races back to the store, where Lucy was tied up.  Her dog is gone, nowhere to be found.  The security guard gives her directions to the pound—down to the far end of the street, turn left, go three miles.  She begins walking.  Unfortunately, Lucy isn’t there.  As she fills out the paperwork and is forced to admit that she has no address or telephone number.  She’ll have to keep coming back.

Wendy spends another night in her car.  When the garage opens the next morning, she heads over to talk to the owner (Will Oldham).  He gives her a mechanic song-and-dance, which includes ominous warnings and a $50 towing fee—even though the car is just 50 feet away.  He then “generously” reduces it to $30.

While waiting for the mechanic to examine her car, Lucy asks for change from the security guard, to call the pound.  He loans her his cell phone, and offers to let her use his number for a contact, should they find Lucy.  It’s the lone act of kindness that we’ve seen so far in the very cold world that this film inhabits.  Unfortunately, Lucy still hasn’t turned up.

Back at the garage, Wendy learns that her car is irreparable.  She tries to sleep in the woods that night, but is terrified when a man hovers over her and screams, as Wendy cowers under her blanket.  When the man finally leaves, Wendy grabs her sparse belongings and races into the bathroom of the nearest gas station, where she finally breaks down.

Later that morning—just when she needs it most—she learns that someone has found Lucy.

Director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt won critical acclaim for her most recent independent film, Old Joy, which explored a relationship between two men, and this should be no different.  This story is extremely timely in these recessionary times, as well, and her message is one of compassion.  Wendy’s plight is largely a result of those nagging little problems that life throws in our direction.  Without money, transportation or friends to help, desperation can easily set in.

The challenge with this sort of film is to not lapse into maudlin sentimentality, but Reichardt never does.  Much of this is due to her narrative which has been pared down to the bone.  We don’t know anything about Wendy’s past—except that she has a sister who can’t even be bothered to talk with her.  We don’t know why she’s going to Alaska, and we don’t know what has made her so stoic.  Fortunately, however, it doesn’t really matter.  We can still appreciate the story, however minimal it may be.  In some ways, it’s even more powerful for its simplicity.

Williams is outstanding in her role.  She gives us a Wendy who, though perhaps less industrious than many, just takes her blows and keeps on standing.  Incredibly, she also manages to avoid melodrama while still showing us a variety of emotions.  It’s her subtle expressions, along with a hint of emotion in her voice, that are so devastating.

This is no Marley & Me.  It’s a thoughtful film that, as early as last summer, would have been dismissed as “artsy.”  Now, with tent cities sprouting up around the country, many of which are housing twenty-somethings, it may be more relevant than ever.  

DVD EXTRAS:

  • Showcase of five short films by Director Kelly Reichardt’s colleagues at Bard College

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Characters are seen smoking and drinking in a couple of scenes.  In one, a character prepares to roll a joint.
  • Language/Profanity:  A handful of profanities and/or obscenities, some strong.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Mild to none.  One vague, off-color reference.
  • Violence:  Mild to none. In one scene, a female character fears for her life while sleeping in the woods, after encountering a man; but the fear proves unfounded.