Of all the contemporary North American directors whose work can be said to have a clear artistic voice, Kelly Reichardt is the one who seems least likely to raise it.
Like 2005’s superb Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy — which stars Michelle Williams as Wendy, a drifter who becomes stranded in a small Oregon town after she loses her canine companion — has a hushed quality that stands in inverse proportion to the growing buzz behind it.
This past December, the Toronto Film Critics Association selected it 2008’s best film, and it showed up on numerous best of the year lists.
Reichardt’s patient, focused style, which eschews fast cutting and favours silence over manipulative musical cues, may be the aesthetic equivalent of a whisper, but the director speaks firmly and plainly about her film’s political undercurrents.
She and co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (with whom she also collaborated on Old Joy) came up with the basic premise of Wendy and Lucy while watching television coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“There was a lot of talk, a lot of right-wing perception that if the people in New Orleans hadn’t ‘made themselves so vulnerable,’ they wouldn’t be in such bad shape,” she says. “So we started off with the question: How can you pull yourself up?
“What about somebody who doesn’t have a net beneath them — no family support, no trust fund, no college education — but does have the spirit to make their life better? Can that person get a toehold into the middle-class in America? Is that idea of work really available to everybody? And from there, we played off of the road movie genre and the idea of making one’s fortune by ‘going west.’”
Exactly why our heroine has decided to go on the road is never specified, an omission that is in keeping with Reichardt’s affinity for narrative ambiguity.
“I didn’t want to load up the film with back-story,” she says, “and I didn’t think it mattered. As with Old Joy, I wanted to give the audience some space, with is appealing to me. Wendy’s circumstances aren’t that important.
“There are so many different ways that people fall out — sickness, a fire, a flood, a lack of opportunities — and we thought it was more important where she was heading to.”
As for the decision to add a dog to what is otherwise a one-woman show, Reichardt cites her own experiences travelling across the United States.
“I spend a lot of time driving around with Lucy, on various excursions around the country. It is very different than being alone. It’s real companionship. If you’re socially awkward and find social situations stressful, it’s a very easy kind of company. It doesn’t tax you. And I think that Wendy is somebody who isn’t really socially engaged.”
• Wendy and Lucy opens in Toronto next Friday.