Wendy And Lucy Is A Story
At the surface level, Wendy and Lucy is a story about a young woman and the struggles she faces as she attempts to find her lost canine companion on limited funds as she travels through a run-down Oregonian town. The setting of the story is confined to only a couple of days, and little to no background information is revealed about the titular character, Wendy, throughout the narrative”but through her struggles, and the way in which they are portrayed, the film paints a careful portrait both of the reality of people living on a budget with absolutely no room for error and of the mundane nature of life in small, forgotten towns..
By Hollywood standards, little happens in the film’s 80-minute run: Wendy and Lucy pass through Oregon on their way to Alaska in hopes of a job–with benefits–at a cannery, Wendy’s old, depleted car breaks down after miles of wear and tear on the drive from Indiana, Wendy is caught stealing food for Lucy, Wendy goes to jail for shoplifting, Lucy goes missing, and Wendy attempts to find her lost companion with no cash, no cellphone, and no clue where to begin.
Through the intentionally quiet and stark nature of the narrative, co-Screenwriter and director Kelly Reichardt avoids explicitly revealing the film’s key themes through narrative and rather employs lighting and contrast, characterization, and cinematography to subtly reveal details of Wendy’s story, and the larger tale of poverty at play through a deeply realist lens.
As a whole, the film’s overarching themes are achieved both through the consistent and general use of mise en scene and cinematography throughout the duration of the film as well as through deliberate constructions and manipulations of these elements in specific scenes. As Film Art emphasizes, perhaps no component of mise-en-scene is more critical to the essence of a film than, as phrased by Sternberg, the adventure of drama and light. (Film Art, page. 131) Wendy and Lucy follows that rule; through low-contrast, muted blue tones, the film’s lighting and color heavily influences how the reader perceives the film’s narrative.
The high-key lighting employed in the outdoor daytime scenes”which make up a majority of the film”eliminates contrast and leads to a dull, flattened appearance that highlights Wendy’s muted, internalized emotional state”and further, highlights the dull, mundane existence of life in impoverished rural communities across the country. However, the opposite is true when Wendy finds herself in extremely vulnerable or even threatening situations; in a scene near the beginning of the film, Wendy comes across a group of vagrants in the woods after Lucy runs a bit ahead.
The high contrast of the dark night sky and the faces of the men and women lit by firelight produce an entirely different emotional response in the audience than the low-contrast day-time scenes. The same effect is on display when Wendy goes to jail; the stark overhead lighting of the jail produces a harsh contrast, or chiaroscuro, that contributes to a feeling of heightened somberness and unease. With the inclusion of these high contrast scenes with low-key lighting in tense or uncertain situations, the film suggests that while daily life for people on the fringes of society tends to be dull and mundane, feelings of uneasiness and fear are only one unfortunate happenstance away.
This emotional state explored via contrast and color is further emphasized through the acting of Michelle Williams as Wendy. Though concepts of realism in performance have drastically changed over time, Williams’ barebones performance falls on the minimalistic end of the stylized spectrum. (Film Art p. 132) There is no added flair to Wendy’s words or actions; she simply moves through space quietly. This is not to say that Williams performance is flat; Wendy displays emotional duress both when she is jailed and later when she has an intimidating encounter with a homeless man in the woods while searching for Lucy.
However, Williams’ performance of Wendy is extremely small, and this acting style combined with Wendy’s characterization leads to a fairly limited scope of depth. Because of her circumstances, the viewer is able to make educated assumptions about Wendy’s inner thoughts and feelings, but the film itself does little to explain Wendy’s background or inner emotional state. In relation to depth, the film’s range is extremely limited; the audience possesses little information about any of the events in the story, and rather only learns of new information as Wendy learns of it onscreen.
For example, one of the few details about Wendy’s life that the audience learns is revealed through a telephone conversation with her brother-in-law and estranged sister after she loses Lucy. Wendy calls from a public telephone, and the scene is shot from outside the paneled glass window covering the booth. The reflections of the cars passing by is shown on the glass, and the sounds of the car engines is nearly as loud as Wendy’s voice as she speaks.
By placing importance on Wendy’s surroundings during the phone call, the film shows that although Wendy’s world is falling apart”she has literally lost Lucy, her companion, with no indication that she can be found and has no way of looking for her because of her broken down vehicle”the world in the small town around her persists on as usual.
This phone call scene also serves as a small glimpse into Wendy’s reality, though it perhaps raises more questions than it answers; Wendy’s brother-in-law presents a friendly voice, but her sister’s harsh comments in the background show that she and Wendy do not share a particularly pleasant relationship. Wendy is clearly affected, if not surprised by, her sister’s lack of compassion toward her situation.
However, as she states on the call, she wasn’t seeking help. She was simply seeking a connection in a time when she desperately needed it, but when she fails to obtain empathy from her sister she neither cries nor gets angry; she simply soldiers on with a quiet determination”because to do otherwise is literally not an option under the circumstances in which she was existing. Wendy’s characterization as portrayed in this aforementioned scene is critical to understanding the film’s overall theme.
Along with characterization and lighting, the cinematography in Wendy and Lucy contributes to the film’s meaning. The film opens with a wide angle long shot of trains, and this type of wide angle long shot can be seen repeatedly throughout the film. An example of this is the scene following the train shot in which Wendy and Lucy are walking through a field; the scene is shot with a wide angle long shot and the camera tracks right along with Wendy and Lucy as the walk forward.
A number of scenes in the film employ this wide angle long shot as Wendy walks through the space on a mission to find Lucy. This choice contributes to a feeling both of repetitiveness and of Wendy’s relatively minor importance in her large surroundings; when the film returns to the familiar visual of Wendy walking seemingly across the scene from a far distance, it cues to the audience to recognize that she is once more on a hunt to find Lucy.
Perhaps most notably, the film is generous with the screen time given to seemingly unimportant shots such as the ones mentioned above. By tracking Lucy and Wendy walking for multiple minutes in the aforementioned scene, the film establishes early that it has no intention of following conventional Hollywood standards of shot length and pacing. By granting gratuitous minutes to those slow moments within the narrative, Wendy and Lucy further defines itself as a work of realism and once more emphasizes the monotonous, wearisome routine that Wendy experiences every day.
This phenomenon is best exemplified through the scene in which Wendy searches for Lucy at the pound. The cinematography breaks from continuity editing momentarily to highlight the hopelessness of the situation; rather than show Wendy searching for Lucy in an establishing shot, the film continuously and slowly tracks left from the onset of the scene to reveal each worn out dog in each worn out cage. Like in the scenes discussed above, the scene is gratuitous with the time it spends doing so; the camera tracks down the aisle of the pound for over a minute without any interruption from Wendy’s point of view.
Finally, the shot switches to Wendy and tracks her in a close up as she walks and continues to search for Lucy. The shot then switches back to the pound in a parallel tracking shot. Then, the scene cuts to Wendy walking out of the poorly lit, high contrast pound after she fails to find Lucy.
The lighting, contrast, and realistic sounds of the dogs barking and howling contribute to the sense of realism in the scene, but it’s ultimately the choice to linger on each shot for a greater-than-normal length of time that contributes most to the film’s realistic outlook. Typically, in films the filler is cut out or at least shortened, but in Wendy and Lucy, this filler is heavily emphasized to mirror real life.
Overall, through the meticulous use of lighting and contrast, characterization, and cinematography, Wendy and Lucy tells a story of life for people living on the fringes.
As an audience, we are actually explicitly told very little about Wendy and her circumstances, but these aspects of film form and style work together to demonstrate the reality of her situation: washed out cool blue tones and the use of low contrast in daytime scenes lead to a feeling of muted, dull emotion while extreme high contrast in nighttime and some indoor scenes leads to a feeling of uncertainty and unease that people like Wendy often encounter; Michelle Williams’ acting style and Wendy’s characterization through costume and actions lead to a sense of a calm, steely resolve born out of a necessity to survive; and long, sweeping wide angle shots accompanied by longer-than-standard filler shots contribute to the film’s overall feel of stark realism.
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