Michelle Williams, in 'Wendy and Lucy'

Dir. Kelly Reichardt
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½

The minimalist drama Wendy and Lucy, about a young woman stuck in Oregon with her dog on their way up north, is 80 minutes long and spans only a few days, but it shows us how a life can take a turn as the result of acts of kindness or unkindness, especially when that life has already been molded by poverty.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is headed to Alaska for work; she hears they need people up there. She’s coming from Indiana, where she has a sister and a brother-in-law. She only has a few hundred dollars and keeps careful track of her expenses; she lives in her car, and when it breaks down she has to crunch the numbers. We aren’t told how she ended up in such dire straits, but she never bemoans her circumstances or makes excuses. She takes things one decision at a time.

She is caught shoplifting food for her dog, Lucy. A zealous store employee (John Robinson) takes her roughly by the arm and escorts her to the manager. He is doing his due diligence, but his manner — standing rigidly upright like a Boy Scout, speaking with emphatic outrage, and even criticizing her for keeping a dog she can’t afford — suggests diligence past due. He lacks empathy; when she sees him again he barely regards her, even though his action has produced consequences for her disproportionate to her crime. If he had grown up in southern California instead of Oregon, I think he might have become one of those Minutemen, who defend our borders against the dire threat of impoverished Mexicans.

A security guard (Wally Dalton, full of quiet sympathy) is kind to her, so kind that he warms every scene he’s in. He first catches her sleeping in her car, and the more he sees her the more he realizes how desperate her situation is. He doesn’t perform any heroics, but he does what he can, and when you’re hard on your luck that’s heroic enough. When she loses Lucy, he lets her use his phone to call the pound. He gives her advice and reassurance. On his day off, he comes to find her to deliver a message. I left the film feeling that he is one of my favorite characters of the year, not because he moves heaven and earth but because he is simply good.

Directed and co-written by Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy has much in common with Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which was also about a woman of limited means and even more limited choices. Like Frozen River, it develops its story so well that every scene flows organically into the next. It ends in a place that feels inevitable because through its writing and the performance of Williams we understand exactly how much Wendy loves Lucy, and what she will do for her.