Wendy and Lucy is a gloriously simple film. Nothing much happens, or at least nothing you’d hold the presses for, but that’s the beauty of it.
Wendy Carroll (Williams) is driving to Alaska in the hope of finding work. Her car won’t start, and then she gets arrested for trying to steal a tin of dog food thanks to a jobsworth shop assistant who’s keen to “set an example”. Nobody listens when she protests that her dog, Lucy, is tethered outside the shop. When she returns, Lucy has gone, and Wendy discovers it will cost a fortune to fix the car.
The only other recurring character is a security guard (Dalton), whose modest gestures of generosity towards Wendy contrast with the jumped-up shop assistant who’s determined to see her arrested. One tiny gesture in particular makes for one of the most memorable scenes in the whole film.
Based on the short story Train Choir by John Raymond, Wendy and Lucy skilfully avoids melodrama. The script doesn’t try to be snarky or cool. It’s skilfully understated and, as a result, succeeds in making events that sound ever so mundane – a car breaking down, for example – seem like the end of the world. Because, for Wendy, all of the shitty things happening to her are the end of her world and her plans to start a new life.
It’s impossible not to become caught up in the misery and desperation Wendy feels as her situation unravels (unless you’re emotionally dead inside, in which case there’s nothing for you here), although we never really find out what’s going on in her life. She speaks to family members on the phone, but we never learn why she’s not living with them any more.
This means we never really discover Wendy’s motivation. We don’t really get inside her head. But that doesn’t matter, because it keeps the film firmly out of melodrama territory and roots our sympathies for Wendy right in the moment. Michelle Williams delivers an astonishingly subtle performance, and it would be an insult to her and to the film to dampen this praise by banging on about other events in Williams’ life – which, in any case, occurred after the film was made. Low-budget and low-key it may be, but Wendy and Lucy is achingly simple and utterly absorbing.