Wendy and Lucy: Lost cause

In his new comedy DVD Kill the Messenger, Chris Rock remarks that people always feel sorry for dogs that belong to homeless guys. It never occurs to them to feel sorry for the homeless men. Director Kelly Reichardt's spare drama Wendy and Lucy uses a canine companion to magnify the audience's empathy for its drifting heroine.

Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a young woman from Indiana driving across America with a dog named Lucy and a vague plan to find work in Alaska. She keeps some cash in a money belt, but strictly rations the reserves to bankroll her trip. When her car breaks down in a former mill town in Oregon, Wendy suffers a series of misfortunes – some avoidable, some not – that emphasize the tenuousness of life on razor-thin financial margins. Even audiences with money will feel familiar pangs of nervousness while wondering whether an auto mechanic (Will Patton) will make a bank-breaking diagnosis.

Lucy's disappearance exacerbates Wendy's desperation, as she struggles to track down the dog while having no car, phone or place to live. Wendy's attachment to Lucy, and her guilt over the pet's disappearance, help cultivate our sympathies for a character who otherwise keeps an emotional remove. The script doesn't explain how she entered such dire straits. Reichardt and Williams embrace a kind of working-class American minimalism – clearly inspired by the Italian neo-realists – that keeps us from getting inside Wendy's head in a conventional, Hollywood way.

Wendy encounters some overt nastiness, particularly from a Junior Fascist grocery store clerk who sneers, "If she can't afford dog food, she shouldn't have a dog" – words that are no less heartless for being partially true. Williams subtly conveys how Wendy clearly hates relying on the kindness of strangers, but finds an ally in an aging security guard (Wally Dalton). In one of the rare scenes of extended conversation, they talk about the paradox of being poor, and how you can't get a job without an address, and can't get an address without a job.

Wendy and Lucy could be marketed as a kind of economic horror movie, one that dares yuppies to witness the nightmare scenarios of taking the bus, sleeping outdoors, washing in Kwik-E-Mart bathrooms and worse. It couldn't happen to you ... or could it?