At the beginning of Kelly Reichardt's deeply affecting Wendy And Lucy, a young woman, en route to Alaska in hopes of getting a job, stalls out in small-town Oregon. Soon enough, it becomes clear that she's little more than a busted timing belt away from utter ruin. Without putting too fine a point on it, Reichardt subtly underscores the predicament of a person living without any margin for error, which in these desperate economic times has become tragically epidemic. Shooting with the same plain-Jane naturalism she brought to her last film, 2006's lyrical Old Joy, Reichardt reduces the story to a simple, direct series of cascading setbacks and an ever-narrowing set of options. Lacking the resources to bail herself out of her situation, her heroine has to make heartbreaking choices just to survive.
In a gratifyingly low-key turn, Michelle Williams plays a quiet loner heading northbound in a beat-up old economy car with her beloved dog Lucy. When the car breaks down, she's coasting on such a thin budget that she's forced to sleep in the back seat until the local mechanic (Will Patton) opens up shop in the morning. Anticipating steep repair costs, Williams tries to shoplift some essentials from a grocery store, but she's caught, arrested, and hauled away while Lucy remains tied to the bike rack outside. When she's finally released—and, to add to her excruciating ordeal, has to take a public bus back to the store—Williams discovers that her dog is missing, and embarks on a roundabout journey to find her, aided only by a kind old security guard (Wally Dalton) who lets her use his phone.
Reichardt deliberately obscures the circumstances that brought Williams to this place—a phone call to her estranged sister only affirms her rootlessness—and chooses to focus instead on Williams' mounting desperation to find her dog, fix the car, and get the hell out of town before she loses all her money. Having the dog around raises the emotional stakes tenfold, and develops a kinship with Vittorio De Sica's Italian neo-realist classic Umberto D., which also revealed societal ills through a poignant dog-owner relationship. As with Old Joy, Reichardt has an excellent sense of proportion: She doesn't try to do too much, but what she does do is fully realized. Animal-lovers are hereby advised to bring the Kleenex.