I’ve never lived on the streets or anything extreme like that. But I’ve had periods, most notably when I left home at 17, when I was almost that close to the edge. These were times that I lived without most of the material things that it’s hard to imagine my living without today (we get spoiled as we get older and get used to whatever standard of living), when there was some uncertainty about my being able to get and keep a place to live, when I was frantically trying to get any kind of job, any kind of income, when the pressure of necessity caused me to develop at least some modestly greater level of street smarts and life skills than I previously had had, when I was dealing with a disproportionate number of new people, new situations, and new problems, and when my life had significantly greater risk, uncertainty, and instability than I was used to. It was a time of anxiety and a little fear, of a grim determination to see it through successfully, of self-satisfaction insofar as I was doing so, of consciousness of growth, and an awareness that this was an adventure of sorts. It was a time when the stakes felt high, when I had the hyper-awareness and intensity of a tightrope walker focused at every moment on all the constantly changing data concerning his body, his balance, the rope, the pole, the wind, etc. It was a time clearly more negative than positive to experience, yet that especially in retrospect I see as a time when I felt very alive in a way that’s importantly positive in spite of all the unpleasantness.
I also had a period of several years in my 20s and 30s when I had a dog who was very special to me. More than once we moved to a new city where it was just the two of us, and we relied heavily on each other for companionship. He was a wonderful friend who kept me from ever feeling significantly lonely.
Wendy and Lucy spoke to me, because it overlapped significantly with both of these aspects of my life.
It’s an indie film, and it’s kind of minimalist in the sense of a leisurely pace, less dialogue than in the average movie, no fancy special effects, no background music, etc. Not to the extreme of something like Trans, but more so than your typical Hollywood movie certainly.
It’s also one of those movies—typically indies—where you’re given little or no background or context at the beginning, and are left instead to infer what you can of that from the clues that are provided along the way.
The story—this is a combination of what’s presented and what you can infer—goes something like this: Wendy is a young woman, I’d guess in her 20s. (Played by Michelle Williams, an actress I’ve seen now in about five films. I tend to like her work, or at least I’ve mostly liked the films I’ve seen her in, and I thought she was very good, very believable, in this role also.) She has left her home in Indiana to set off in her car with a minimal amount of possessions, a few hundred dollars (she keeps meticulous records in a notebook of every dollar she spends and how much she has left), and her dog Lucy, with an intended destination of Alaska, where she plans to get ahead financially by putting some time in at one of the high-paid, seasonal canning jobs the state is known for.
She’s not totally white trashy. I’d guess she’s from a middle to lower middle class or working class background. She strikes me as neither being savvy and experienced with living on the road on her own or having street smarts in general, nor as being completely naïve and lacking in the necessary survival tools. Probably not too much different from how I was when I was young and setting off on my own: having to learn on the fly and make up a fair amount of it as I went along, but not completely in over my head.
We’re not shown why she left Indiana. I don’t get the impression it was a matter of fleeing abuse from a significant other or parents, or that she’s running from the law—nothing so dramatic as that. I doubt she left kids behind or anything. Judging from a brief phone call to her sister and brother-in-law back home, where she seems undecided about whether to ask for help and they (the sister especially) pre-emptively let her know that no help is available for her, I suspect she is someone who has burned her bridges with the people in her life to an extent—broken promises, not been fully responsible, accepted help and not made proper use of it or paid it back, maybe drug or alcohol issues though I’m not sure, and in general not been mature enough to take care of herself—and she has decided she needs a fresh start somewhere she isn’t known as a loser, hasn’t disappointed people, so she can stabilize herself and her finances, maybe to eventually return home when her life is on a sounder footing.
That’s pretty much all speculative to varying degrees.
I’d also speculate that her relationship with Lucy is more important to her than the typical one between a person and their dog, as being responsible for a dog adds expense and complication and lessens flexibility in a situation like this where you’re living out of your car, you have only a vague idea where you’re going and what you’ll do—such as what living arrangements will be available—when you get there, and your money is very limited. Evidently the emotional support, the bond, is strong enough to warrant bringing her along.
Anyway, as the film opens, Wendy and Lucy are in a small town in Oregon. I think northwest Oregon, not too far from Portland. She has driven across several states already, sleeping in her car along the way to save money, but is still a considerable distance from her destination. Her car is old and none-too-reliable, and she’s just hoping it gets her as far as Alaska where she can secure enough of an income to get it fixed or replaced.
But alas, after a security guard taps on her window to inform her that she is not allowed to park and sleep where she is in the parking lot of a strip mall, she discovers her car will not start. With his help (he turns out to be a positive character, a kindly fellow who helps her out in modest ways over the course of the movie), she moves her car to the street.
As she contemplates the delay and expense of dealing with her car, she walks to a nearby grocery store to pick up a few items. She slips what she can into her pocket, looking around to make sure she isn’t being watched. I don’t know if shoplifting is something she has been doing all along on this trip to stretch her money, or if it’s something she’s doing now for the first time because she’s in a panic over the unanticipated necessity of spending money on car repairs. She’s really not that close to being out of money, but depending on how major the repairs are that are necessary, she may feel she’s going to get there uncomfortably soon.
Unfortunately, she is spotted and ratted out by a zealous employee. She is taken by the police to the local jail. After a few hours, she is released upon paying a $50 fine.
The bigger problem than being down another $50 is that she had involuntarily left Lucy tied up outside the store when the police took her away, and when she returns, she discovers that Lucy and her leash are gone.
The bulk of the film then follows her over the course of a day or two in this Oregon town, trying to locate Lucy and get the car squared away so she can resume her journey, and having to do it all with various impediments such as having little money, having no place to sleep beyond her car, having nowhere to wash or change clothes or take care of herself beyond a gas station restroom, being stuck on foot and on buses, and not knowing the town or anyone in it.
She’s mostly an internal person, affectionate with Lucy certainly, but guarded and not at all talkative with people. She’s wary of people—not paranoid, terrified, or blatantly unfriendly, but wary. She’s reluctant but not completely unwilling to accept help if it’s offered to her, such as by the friendly security guard. She’s not a manipulative person, seeking to do or say whatever she needs to in order to get money or other assistance from people. I wonder watching her if some of that isn’t the product of a conscious decision to prove her self-reliance on this trip, to perhaps break patterns of relying on others or looking for short cuts.
You sense that attitude of: It’s just me now. Or me and Lucy. And I’m going to prove I can make it on my own.
She manifests a certain amount of strength and will power, but you can see the situation gradually breaking her down as it becomes impossible for her to deny to herself that this might not work after all, that she might not ever make it to Alaska, might not ever prove what she’s trying to prove, might have to crawl back to Indiana with her tail between her legs. She’s in tears or close to it multiple times as she fights against that feeling of hopelessness and failure.
I found myself engaged in Wendy and Lucy from start to finish, caring about Wendy and her plight, and as I say feeling like I had been there myself in certain respects and so maybe I understood better than I otherwise might what was going on inside her.
I think being able to identify with her was key to my reaction to the film. It was different from, say, Ghosts and its story of oppressed and exploited immigrants, or a movie about starving people in Africa, or people suffering terribly in wartime. Different in that, one, it overlapped more with my own experiences, and, two, the difficulties it depicted were not so vast and severe as to just seem too intimidating to deal with.
Because it featured a protagonist vaguely like me, dealing with problems that were vaguely familiar to me and not hopelessly overwhelming, it triggered in me an urge to help. Watching someone doing her best to make things work in her life, but finding herself on the edge and really struggling, I felt like our lives, my life, must interact with those of countless people in similar straits, and I thought about how I hope that when all is said and done I’ve done more to help than hinder such people in their struggles. You know, I felt the urge to—in whatever small way—give someone like that a better shot of making it through their present troubles successfully. Maybe it’s slipping such a person a few dollars, giving them a ride somewhere, offering a hug, giving some advice, putting a word in for them about a job, giving them a place to crash for a night or two, whatever. Maybe no more than the modest amount the security guard in this movie does, but something that at least gives such a person a little nudge in a positive direction, making them feel a little less alone and hopeless.
I suppose I even had a slight sense of wishing I were back to being on the edge like her myself, where I feel more alive, the stakes are higher, and I’m having to rely on my wits and find new resources within me to make it. I’ll say 10%-15% missing when life felt like that, and 85%-90% grateful that I have enough stability and security that life no longer feels like that.
Certainly one thing the film brings home about being on the edge like that—financially, emotionally, or whatever—is how little margin for error there is. (Which I suppose follows logically from the notion of being “on the edge”—that you have less room.) A stroke of bad luck or a poor decision—even a seemingly minor one—can send you on a downward spiral startlingly quickly.
Wendy and Lucy is a well-done, thoughtful little film. It’s nothing spectacular I suppose, but to me it’s a clear winner.