Wearing a blue hoodie, pants cut off at the knee and tan sneakers, Wendy Carroll is on the run from her own sad life. In her 20s and alone, she pulls into a drizzly Oregon town, has car problems, gets into trouble with the law, and then loses her dog, Lucy.
That's about the sum of what happens in Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, except to say that somehow, thanks to an extraordinary performance from Michelle Williams and an exceptionally deft hand from her director, this low-budget and loping little film is a genuine heartbreaker.
A meditation on loneliness and an unsentimental - and scarily timely - examination of the thin divide between those with jobs and homes and those without, Wendy and Lucy has a quiet resonance that fans of Reichardt's Old Joy will recognize.
But where the filmmaker's 2006 pic about two old pals taking a hike in the woods (same backdrop, the Pacific Northwest) examined the bonds of friendship through a stoner haze, Wendy and Lucy describes the desperate solitude of a woman whose emotions are clamped down tight, and whose one real "friend" is her rangy mutt. Disconnected from her family, Wendy has a plan of sorts - to find work in a fishing cannery in Alaska - but doesn't have much purpose beyond that. Her sights are aimed low, and squarely ahead.
Grainy and quiet, Wendy and Lucy is the real-world Marley & Me - a world that has nothing to do with Hollywood or showcase houses or trained canines that deliver cute on command.
And nothing to do with celebrities, either. There isn't a moment in Marley & Me where you can forget that its stars are perennial US Weekly angsters Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson. There isn't a moment in Wendy and Lucy when it even occurs to think of Williams as the sad-eyed mom of the late Heath Ledger's child. The actress completely loses herself in the role, and does so in ways that are delicate and indrawn.
There's a pivotal scene with Williams' character curled up in a sleeping bag, in the woods of a park, when a menacing figure approaches. Reichardt closes in on Williams' face, and its look of fear and defenselessness and aching aloneness is staggering. There's not a word uttered, and yet the actress, nearly as still as a statue, practically wails.
Wendy and Lucy was written by Reichardt with Jon Raymond, adapting his story "Train Choir," and the film has the telling details, the seemingly ordinary exchanges, of a great short story.
While this is Williams' movie through and through - and one of the strongest performances from an actress in any of the 2008 releases, Oscar nomination or not - Walter Dalton is terrific as a craggy security guard who offers Wendy a bit of help and the use of his cell phone. Will Patton shows up as a garage mechanic, John Robinson is a hard-nosed young grocery-store clerk and even Will Oldham, the singer and Old Joy costar, pokes his mug into the frame.
Wendy and Lucy is modest, minimalist. But it nonetheless reverberates like a sonic boom.