One Girl and Her Dog

Kelly Reichardt is establishing herself as the creator of beautiful, meditative indie gems. Gail Tolley meets her to discuss her new film Wendy and Lucy.

Feature by Gail Tolley | 27 Feb 2009

Kelly Reichardt’s 2007 feature Old Joy was a sensitively told story about two friends who meet up after several years to take a weekend camping trip. The film’s beauty lay in its minimal dialogue, its sensitive observation of friendship and ambient score by American indie rock band Yo la Tengo. It also starred Will Oldham, perhaps better known for his musical endeavour as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Reichardt’s latest work, Wendy and Lucy features Oldham again, this time in a cameo role, however it is Michelle Williams as Wendy who really steals the show. On a journey north to look for work and accompanied by her dog Lucy she faces difficulty when her car breaks down and her finances run low. 

Reichardt was particularly interested in individuals who tread the line between survival and poverty and there’s little doubt that Wendy and Lucy is imbrued with a sense of the political, albeit with a small ‘p’. And in particular it plays out against a backdrop of the growing gap between the rich and the poor observed during the Bush era. Reichardt explains “This film was written right after [Hurricane] Katrina happened and it was very much in the forefront of our minds. It [the aftermath] really said that America didn’t just ignore its poor is distained people in poverty and this was the wake in which we started writing the script.” And whilst Reichardt argues that her film is very much a story of its time, it also carries influences from the Italian Neorealist films of the 40s and 50s which were made in the context of a poverty-stricken, post war Italy and took as its subject matter the everyday lives of ordinary people. “We were having this nagging feeling about Neorealism and going back and revisiting those films just because those themes are really relevant right now.” 

Accompanying these themes is a naturalistic visual approach that captures the small-town world of the American North-West. With both of Reichardt’s last two features being rooted in this part of North America I asked her about the role location plays in her films. “For both films I spent a lot of time driving around the country looking for other locations. For Wendy and Lucy I drove around the country for six months just looking around, which is all part of the process, trying to figure out what the film is. But both times I ended up shooting right where John [Jonathan Raymond, the writer] writes them and he just writes from what’s outside his window. With Wendy and Lucy it’s a little different because she’s on her way to Alaska in particular, but the places where we’re shooting are parking lots, service stations and this could be anywhere in America, more so than Old Joy I think.” 

I asked Reichardt if (as one of the few women successfully making films in the American independent sector) she felt she bought a certain feminist sensibility to her work. “Everyone who makes a film brings their point of view and I’m sure my point of view is certainly from a feminist perspective, by the nature of how you see the world as a woman, which is probably a different experience from how you see the world as a man. But for Old Joy I found those characters very relatable and John Raymond mostly wrote the voice for Wendy, so it’s difficult to define in those terms. It’s interesting to think what Wendy’s plight would be if she wasn’t female; is she more vulnerable or does she have more advantages?” 

There’s certainly a sense of universality to Wendy’s story, unlimited by race or gender it could quite easily be transposed to most Western settings. If Wendy and Lucy is a symptom of a closing era of political frustration in the States it will be interesting to see what Reichardt’s next project entails, moving into a period where hope and expectations are high.