I saw two films at the Women's Film Festival over the weekend, one really great, another OK but slightly disappointing. Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy is a formally elegant independent drama about a young woman (played by Michelle Williams) on her way to Alaska for a job. Her car breaks down in Oregon, and she gets arrested for petty theft after stealing food for her dog. The rest of the narrative focuses on her search for her dog over the next couple of days. The narrative is both ordinary and yet highly dramatic and compelling, and Reichardt's style here is both properly distanced and sympathetic to the character's plight. Wendy and Lucy is part of what A.O. Scott has dubbed "neo neo-realism" in American indie cinema, and I generally agree that the presence of these films dealing with the working class is desperately needed at the moment. Wendy and Lucy offers an example that these films can also have a strong aesthetic grounding, which will be key to the ultimate success of this movement (if it is a movement at all). You can find Scott's piece here, as well as Richard Brody's less favourable take on these films here.
I find myself agreeing with Scott and disagreeing with Brody on Wendy and Lucy, but Kim So Yong's Treeless Mountain, which Scott also mentions, seems to me much less distinguished. It is here that I agree with Brody about the need to go beyond a superficial realism. Kim's story about two young girls who are left behind by a mother who can no longer support them is a compelling one. It is the flip side to Wendy and Lucy, if that film were told from the perspective of Lucy. But this might be part of the problem with the story, or at least Kim's approach to it. While the two young girls perform fine, there are limits with what can be done with child actors on a dramatic level. This is especially true when the style is mostly concerned with a basic illusionist approach. Kim never really establishes a strong visual approach to the material, and as a result the film meanders and instead relies upon the capturing of natural imagery to attempt to add a reflective tone to the work. I never found the approach compelling and engaging, despite my interest in the story and material.
The festival continues until Thursday.