"Old Joy" helmer Kelly Reichardt plays to her strengths in "Wendy and Lucy," a modest yet deeply felt road movie about an idealistic young drifter.

“Old Joy” helmer Kelly Reichardt plays to her strengths in “Wendy and Lucy,” a modest yet deeply felt road movie about an idealistic young drifter, her faithful canine and the wide-open spaces of the Pacific Northwest. Once again working from a short story by “Old Joy” scribe Jon Raymond, Reichardt has fashioned another carefully observed, old-school indie portrait of regional American life that feels, in the best sense, as though it could have been made 25 years ago. Strong reviews and the superb central performance of Michelle Williams should help the film reach Reichardt’s largest audience to date.

Living out of her car with barely two spare dimes to rub together, Indiana native Wendy (Williams) has, like the protagonist of last year’s “Into the Wild,” set out for Alaska, where she hopes to find gainful employment in a Ketchikan fish cannery. Things go awry, however, when her wreck of a car breaks down in Oregon and Wendy takes an ill-conceived stab at shoplifting dog food for her lone traveling companion, Lucy, whom attentive viewers will recognize as the same tan-colored retriever that accompanied the two male leads of “Old Joy” on their trek into the woods. (The dog is, in real life, Reichardt’s own.)

Caught red-handed by an overly officious stock boy (well-played by “Elephant” star John Robinson), Wendy is arrested and slapped with a stiff fine. By the time she returns to the supermarket parking lot where she left Lucy tied up, the dog has disappeared.

Remainder of “Wendy and Lucy” concerns Wendy’s efforts to fix her car and find her lost pet, which Reichardt dramatizes in a series of two-handers between Wendy and the various strangers, some kinder than others, who cross her path. They run the gamut, from the avuncular rent-a-cop (folk musician Walter Dalton) who lends Wendy the use of his cell phone, the straight-shooting auto mechanic (a delightfully eccentric Will Patton) with a jones for horse racing, and the vagrant (played by horror auteur Larry Fessenden, also one of pic’s producers) who gives Wendy a deserved fright during a night she spends sleeping in a park. Collectively, they form a convincing panorama of the types one might encounter on such a journey, and it’s a testament to Reichardt’s skill with actors that even the smallest bit players give off the same lived-in, workaday feel.

Best of all is Williams, who doesn’t say very much (no one in the film does), but who conveys an inexorable sense of longing for something more than life has given her. As with the rudderless, about-to-be-evicted Kurt character in “Old Joy,” there is a sense that Wendy may be searching for a bygone, non-corporatized, “real” America that exists in ever-shorter supply, if at all. Also deserving mention is Lucy herself, who has few equals in the world of canine thesping, and was deservedly awarded Cannes’ unofficial Palme Dog prize (from a jury that included film critics Derek Malcolm and Peter Bradshaw) for her performance.

Reichardt paints on such a miniature canvas that it seems as though, at any moment, the whole delicate house of cards could come undone — if the pic were, for example, 81 minutes instead of 80. But like any seasoned traveler, Reichardt doesn’t overstay her welcome and knows exactly when it’s time to get back on the highway, building, as in “Old Joy,” to a memorable ending suffused equally with possibility and melancholy.

Shot in mostly natural light by cinematographer Sam Levy, pic finds a faded but resonant beauty in gas-station restrooms, roadside phone booths and abandoned lots. Hovering above it all is the lyrical, ever-present gloom of the Oregon sky.

Wendy and Lucy

Production

A FilmScience, Glass Eye Pix production. (International sales: Memento Films Intl., Paris.) Produced by Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Larry Fessenden. Executive producers, Todd Haynes, Phil Morrison, Rajen Savjani, Joshua Blum. Directed, edited by Kelly Reichardt. Screenplay, Reichardt, Jon Raymond, based on the story "Train Choir" by Raymond.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Sam Levy; additional camera, Greg Schmitt. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 23, 2008. Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Wendy - Michelle Williams Mechanic - Will Patton Andy - John Robinson Man in Park - Larry Fessenden Icky - Will Oldham Security Guard - Walter Dalton

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