— Help Wanted —
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
By Patrick McEvoy-Halston
With “Wendy and Lucy” involving one proud woman traveling through rugged or decrepit surroundings, hoping to work her way to the one place available which might just hold promise of a secure life, and perhaps fulfillment (i.e., Alaska), the film could be deemed post-apocalyptic. But in films of this genre, where civilization wears and wolves encroach, setting serves to highlight and facilitate/necessitate heroic action from the main protagonist, and overall register a strong sense that this is the only appropriate backdrop for manly, independent living—the one gigantic thing civilization cannot offer because it ostensibly comes at the expense of. The film works the other way around, where adults born when American society felt assured, prove still worth seeking out, for they may be, if not the only—certainly the best source available to help orient you to take on a more substantive, human, way of relating with the world.
It certainly isn’t fair to say that Wendy simply reacts to the world. She is shown throughout the film making something of the environment she finds herself in. She steals; parks her car where-ever-where; “transforms” a gas station bathroom into her own personal safehouse; and, when she is more comfortable therein, less braced against all its first-encounter newness, ranges wide across (her) town, bulletining images of her dog everywhere appropriate, in an act which reads as much of personal territorial possession/demarcation as it does of fervent canine rescue. She is in fact quite aggressive—with even her relative or absolute stillness in certain situations, reading not so much of forced paralysis but as a wily-enough-a-way to ride things through. But though her aggressiveness may in fact be born out of a fear of paralysis, of being or feeling susceptible to being used, it’s not as much a triumph to witness as one might expect: one can imagine a whole life of such willful demonstrations ahead; and though it’s better than just giving up, you wonder how far a life of sharp survival instinct is from one infused with soulful intent—how distanced all such is from the animalistic? Again, to be fair to the film, the loner’s libertarianism is not exactly disparaged here, but there is a sense that while it “argues” that it is much, much better to be the lone wolf than the pack animal, that the loner who survives through canniness, a willingness to act, alone, for better or worse, is vastly more dignified than those who mongrelize away into groups, it’s still—so very sadly—so many worlds away from where humans need to, and should, be.
This, then, is not your 70’s post-apocalyptic, where being alone but with your dog was essentially shorthand for experiencing the height of human freedom and existential grandeur. With apologies to the Cold War, oil shortages, and Americans all-drunk-on-narcissism-funk, this is a film made 30 years past the 70’s hysteria—30 years past the period where even Republicans voted for increases in social welfare spending—and those 30 years of brutal withdrawal of social concern and common purpose has made a future of large-scale dissolution seem possible enough for us now to believe, believe, believe in Obama because he just has to be the answer. So in an era where the decomposition 70’s style anti-heroes loved because it drew all to their own certain will, feels like it is really could be just ahead, the big draw is not so much libertarian range but security—Alaska draws Wendy because it may offer a job, in a cannery, which should sound horrible, last resort, but may in fact appeal because it suggests a life without too much adjusting to experience amidst the uncertain, insecure now.
When an aging, middle class man—the one who ends up taking care of Lucy—who in more sure times would have laughed at by anyone on the outside for his inane, life-abnegating, bourgeois staidness, is set up in the end primarily to represent stability, predictability, good care and kindness—the good home—you know a society has weathered to the point where simple security can seem golden. Wendy knows its lure, and is reminded of it the very moment she loses Lucy. Before the loss, while Wendy was with Lucy, Wendy had some composure: she could listen to a group of train riders— respectfully if inertly—but dust them off as so much “wtf” and head on along on her way. Set, content, with a dog of considerable well-being and joyfulness, it is even fair to say of her that she seemed someone with the capacity, at least, to make Alaska more than just a place to get a job—to make it a place where a better life might just be realized if not found. But when she looses Lucy, the search for her has some of the urgent feel of the loss of a security blanket to an easily panicked child. Her self-composure is uncertain enough that she needs the external environment to aid in propping it up. This is natural enough for the child but undeveloped for the adult (however many true adults there are out there), and what Wendy needs she can’t in fact get to any sufficient degree from any pet, however radiant, beautiful and responsive that pet might be. For what Wendy needs is what only parents can, potentially, offer their children: namely, a clear (to the child) ability to weather their various mood inconsistencies, their reaching-outs (for individualization) and coming-backs (for comfort). But not because they are dependent on them—which is why a pet can offer the same—but because they sense the child's need for a secure foundation to ground their efforts to reach out and explore their world.
Another way of saying all this is that Wendy has grown up without a nest. It’s evident in her impulse to cling and in her impulse to register the least amount of responsiveness possible—the default response of the abandoned chick, lest an inopportune squack strike the interest of a nearby hawk—and we particularly feel it when, at a moment when she is evidently in need of reassurance / orientation, she calls her brother and his girlfriend, and they respond so defensively she ends up having to reassure them. It is possible, however, that when Wendy made this call, she was enjoying the comfort-food available in just participating in the shared social convention/expectation of turning to immediate family when occasion “dictates,” and also, perhaps, to confirm what she was already coming to know: namely, that the kind of support she is in need of is to be found in her contacts with strangers, not family, in her developing “friendship” with the aged parking-lot security-guard, in particular.
(A few more paragraphs. The end.)
Wendy and Lucy. Dir. Kelly Reichardt. Perf. Michelle Williams. Field Guide. 2008. Film.