promotional still from the AFI Fest movie Wendy and Lucy
Yesterday was a Michelle Williams double header, since before seeing Synecdoche, New York I caught a little indie flick called Wendy and Lucy. Williams is Wendy, a woman living out of her car, trying to make her way from Indiana to Alaska, and Lucy is Wendy’s dog.

If there was ever a time for the story of an essentially homeless woman with dwindling cash funds trying to make her way across the country with her dog, this Second Great Depression is it. Wendy and Lucy even has an early scene where Wendy meets some hobos sitting around a campfire.

We like Wendy because she cares for her dog. (This is the oldest sympathy trick in the screenwriter’s arsenal.) But not long into the film, Wendy loses Lucy. Dogless, we see her true character. She is weak and unresourceful.

A weak, unresourceful character is hard to watch and even though the movie was 80 minutes or so, it felt much longer. Any time there was a chance for Wendy to stand up for herself, she shrank from conflict. Any time she could’ve been clever or talked her way out of a fix, she sits inert. Even when she is approached by a potential murderer/rapist, she can’t get up the nerve to run away.

Williams, in a role that should’ve been akin to something like Ryan Gosling’s in Half-Nelson — a fascinating character study inside a stultifyingly-paced indie — is given little to work with. Her character is too passive.

I won’t spoil whether Wendy gets her dog back or her car gets her to Alaska, which constitutes the entire suspense of the film. Wendy and Lucy is the perfect festival bait. It has a big Hollywood star and a bleak, slow story. There are merits to it, including confident directing by Kelly Reichardt. (Reichardt, also the editor, should probably have let someone else edit the film, since the pacing was not a plus.) The story, as I have said, is timely. The majority of America’s homeless are women and children. But they don’t stay homeless as long, and they aren’t as visible. This is the kind of story that could do something to highlight the issue.

But don’t look to see Wendy and Lucy in theaters near you any time soon. If the character was more resourceful, she might even have been fun to watch. As it is, with her lack of pluck, you very much understand how she got to such a low place. You have compassion, but it’s hard to help a person who won’t help herself.