High Museum of Art: Films

Recent Releases: Hard Times in the Country by Linda Dubler
June 23, 2009, 11:29 am
Filed under: New DVD Release, Review | Tags: , , , , , , ,
Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy

Before the economy officially went belly-up, two American indie directors were already sending dispatches from the hardscrabble heartland. Frozen River and Wendy & Lucy, both recently released on DVD, are films by women directors who have a lot to say about invisibility, suffering, and resilience. Though very different in tone, both feature women who are on their own and down to their last dollar. No loveable, suddenly mature shlub (the current incarnation of Prince Charming) is waiting in the wings for these gals; rescue isn’t even part of the equation.

Frozen River, directed by Courtney Hunt, is the meatier of the two movies; it’s as emotionally satisfying as a melodrama but its realism tempers that genre’s tear-jerking conventions. (Watch the trailer.) Set in upstate New York, where the Mohawk reservation abuts the Canadian border, the film unfolds during the days leading up to Christmas. It centers on two single mothers, Ray (Melissa Leo), who’s got two boys and a big hole in her bank account left by her gambling husband; and Lila (Misty Upham), a tough young Mohawk mourning for the baby that her mother-in-law has stolen. Lila, reckless in her grief, is a smuggler who drives illegals across the frozen St. Lawrence River. She makes good money, and figures that for enough of a bribe, she’ll be able to get her baby back.  Ray, faced with the loss of her whole investment unless she can come up a substantial payment on a double wide, reluctantly asks Lila to cut her in on a couple of trips.

Frozen River

Frozen River

American movies love to celebrate the quasi-erotic abandon of outlaws behind the wheel — think Thelma and Louise or Bonnie and Clyde — but don’t count Ray and Lila among them. The dominant emotions in Frozen River are anxiety and desperation. This is a movie about being left in the cold, both literally and metaphorically. Ray, a smart woman trying to raise two kids on a part-time Dollar Store salary, is reduced to feeding her sons popcorn and Tang for breakfast (and no, it isn’t played for comedy). Like poor people all across the country, she’s frozen out, but at least she still knows what she feels. Lila is emotionally deadened by anger’s deep freeze, and it takes the movie’s version of a Christmas miracle to awaken her capacity to really believe in a future for herself and her child.

Frozen River‘s desolate winter landscapes and cramped interiors, its gas stations and bingo halls and poorly insulated trailers washed in cold northern light, are real places where women like Ray and Leo do what they have to do to preserve themselves and those they love. The nuanced, heartbreaking performances by Leo and Upham make their world inescapably present.

A devotion to the present moment, and to capturing its particulars also colors Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. (Watch the trailer.) The film stars Michelle Williams as a solitary young woman who, accompanied by her dog Lucy, hits the road bound for Alaska, fueled by the hope of a decent job in the fishing industry. Unlike the male hero of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, Wendy isn’t some rich kid on a journey of self-discovery. She’s unemployed and broke, with nowhere to go but forward.  Her boxy old Honda dies in Oregon, and while awaiting its repair she has the misfortune of being caught stealing a couple of cans of dog food. An officious jerk at the grocery insists to his manager that her crime deserves punishment, so she’s hauled off to the police station and forced to leave Lucy behind. When she returns, her beloved companion is gone.

Into the Wild introduced us to a guy who was good with people and bad at surviving. Wendy doesn’t really have the people thing down – she’s not an extrovert and isn’t about to seduce or save anyone – but she knows how to take care of herself. She dresses like a teenaged boy and washes up at the gas station. Her car and her dog keep her safe from men who would prey on her, and when they’re gone, she’s as exposed as a turtle without its shell.

Wendy and Lucy is short on incident. Reichardt less interested in what happens to Wendy than in how it feels. She wants us to really see a patch of green bathed in sunshine, a shabby commercial strip in a town where the mills and factories closed a long time ago, a lonely train yard; to hear the crackling of dead leaves and the terrifying sound of a stranger’s voice in the dark woods.  She wants us to know what it’s like to be in Wendy’s skin. Thanks to her lucid, unromanticized direction and  Michelle Williams’s potent, inward-looking performance she succeeds.

Linda Dubler

Have you seen Frozen River and Wendy and Lucy? Tell us what you think, and share other American indies worth watching.

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