Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where Wendy and Lucy (2008) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 64 of the first edition hardback, Ebert reminisces about his childhood dog Blackie & all of the cinematic dogs he’s fallen in love with over the years. He writes, “Every time I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can’t even think about the movie’s plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me. I have an empty space inside myself that can only be filled by a dog.”
What Ebert had to say in his review: “The people in [Wendy and Lucy] haven’t dropped out of life; they’ve been dropped by life. It has no real use for them, and not much interest. They’re on hold. At least searching for your lost dog is a consuming passion; it gives Wendy a purpose and the hope of joy at the end. That’s what this movie has to observe, and it’s more than enough.” -from his 2008 review for the Chicago Sun-Times
“You can’t get an address without an address. You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.”
Ebert was onto something when he mentioned in his review of My Dog Skip that certain movies, particularly movies about dogs, exist outside of critical language. The pathos of a pet owner’s relationship with their dog is strong enough in its sentimentality that a movie doesn’t have to do much to get by on that emotion/nostalgia alone. My Dog Skip skated by in this way as a passably okay movie. It’s not particularly well made or interesting, but its sappy love for canines was sufficient enough on its own to escape any pointed criticism. Shooting the movie down would be like criticizing a birthday card from your grandmother for its lack of literary ambition.
Wend and Lucy has no such tendency to rely on that dog owner sentimentality for easy drama/emotional provocation. A dirt cheap drama starring Michelle Williams years before she was a recognizable name, Wendy and Lucy tells the story of a down-on-her-luck migrant worker traveling to Alaska in hopes of landing a seasonal gig at a cannery. While on her way the titular Wendy finds herself near broke, friendless, and without a vehicle in small town Oregon. Worst yet, her only companion, a dog named Lucy, goes missing. Instead of the broad, overly sentimental strokes My Dog Skip paints with, Wendy and Lucy finds tonal devastation in subtle details. The film’s tendency for narrative understatement threatens to alienate the audience from caring about or fully understanding Wendy’s plight, but the feeling of having lost your dog/your entire world is such a universally recognizable gut punch that her predicament is all too relatable from the outside looking in.
Besides employing the universality of human-dog companionship to clue the audience in on where Wendy is in life, the movie also relies on recognizable hallmarks of an economy in shambles to introduce us to her struggle. She’s plundering pocket change for dog food, sifting through highway litter for recyclable aluminum cans, shoplifting, and relying on word of mouth from train-hopping crusties (including Will Oldham among them of all people), who are dog magnets in case you were unaware, just to scrape by. Wendy is recognizable to the audience because she’s every poor soul who’s been left behind by a cutthroat economy that has no room for them. This is the kind of character for whom $50 could make or break their entire life. Wendy’s background & motivation don’t need to be any more specific for the film’s emotional stakes to land. We know who she is & we’re invested in her success.
A lesser film might’ve crafted some kind of explicit metaphor out of Wendy’s lost dog/lost place in the world, but, again, this is not the same kind of drama as the on-the-nose (er, snout?) emotional manipulation as that of My Dog Skip (or, more recently, White God). Wendy and Lucy’s overbearing sense of dread & imminent danger is more of a tone than a blatant provocation. The vulnerability of Wendy being alone in a strange place, not having a place to sleep, and resorting to the nerve-racking tactic of tying Lucy up when entering places of business (Lucy is a good girl, but that always makes me nervous) all combine to make for a terrifying atmosphere. The stakes are relatively small here compared to a summer blockbuster where a CGI threat from another dimension might crush an entire city, but that small scale specificity only helps the emotional weight feel significant. One of the saddest shots in this film is a dialogueless pan across all the jailed dogs’ cells at a local pound. One of the biggest offenses committed is a character coldly spitting, “If a person can’t afford a dog they shouldn’t have a dog.” I’ll admit that some of the drama here is dependent upon the audience’s sentimental affection for dogs in general (this particularly hit home for me when Wendy refers to Lucy as “Lou”, which was the name of my first pet, a cat), but that sentiment was a starting point, not an end goal. Wendy and Lucy moves in small, calculated stabs at heartbreaking drama that makes that jumping point necessary, but the tenderly sad payoff of the end more than justifies the means.
Roger’s Ranking: (3.5/4, 88%)
Brandon’s Ranking: (4/5, 80%)
Next Lesson: Shiloh (1996)