Memorable films have told stories of family being thwarted by poverty—from “The Grapes of Wrath” to “Angela’s Ashes.” But, in her 2008 film “Wendy and Lucy,” director Kelly Reichardt chose an unexpected pair to illustrate the upheaval: a young woman, Wendy, and her dog, Lucy.
Viewers first meet Wendy (four-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams) in a transitory state: Strapped for cash and living out of her car with Lucy, she’s en route to a cannery in Alaska, where she’s heard it’s easier to find work. However, in small-town Oregon, her car breaks down. Unable to pay for repairs right away—and out of food for Lucy—Wendy tries to steal a can of chow from a local grocery store. A righteous, pale-faced clerk catches her and turns her in to the police. When Wendy returns to retrieve Lucy from the parking lot outside the store, the dog is gone—and so the pair must find their way back to one another.
It would be easy for “Wendy and Lucy” to succumb to tropes like over-romanticizing the relationship between dog and owner, or making Wendy almost pious in her devotion to both Lucy and to finding a better life. But the film skirts cliche thanks to its spare, unfussy dialogue, and Williams’s simmering performance. In Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” a film for which the actress received an Oscar nod this year, Williams stuns with short and sharp outbursts of grief. In “Wendy and Lucy,” she does the opposite: onscreen for almost the entire film, her character tries desperately to appear put-together while bearing the weight of worry and exhaustion. When Wendy visits the local animal shelter to look for Lucy, she describes the dog with diligence, and upon revealing she cannot provide a home address, she endures the clerk’s judgmental stare with poise. However, when Williams does let Wendy’s emotions bubble to the surface, it feels earned: for example, when she encounters the grocery store clerk a second time—and he barely acknowledges her—Wendy snarls that he’s a “real hero,” yelling after him as he drives away. It is in these moments that Wendy’s predicament feels most heartbreaking.
When Wendy finds Lucy (she discovers a local man had been fostering her), their reunion is joyous—on opposite sides of a chain-link fence, Wendy cries silently as Lucy licks her face—but only for a moment. Wendy must decide whether she can afford to keep the dog she’s worked so hard to find again—an illustration of the fact that no matter how hard mothers and children need and want each other, the cold machinery of capitalism, fueling the divisive wedge of poverty, can still drive them apart.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn. In her free time she enjoys attaching googly eyes to subway signs, and writing short descriptions about herself. Her work has been featured in MTV, Lenny Letter, Vice, and various other publications.
This feature originally appeared in the Money issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Money issue here. Read Mind Over Money: An Interview with LearnVest Founder Alexa von Tobel or The Floridian Underbelly: A Review of Sarah Gerard’s “Sunshine State”.