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Girl and Dog, Interrupted

“Wendy and Lucy” brings the minimalist indie film to the mainstream, but can it hang?

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Double features at the cinema are pretty much dead and buried these days, but if such pairings were still popular, I'd like to see the results of putting “The Dark Knight” with “Wendy and Lucy.” These movies are the extreme ends of American filmmaking: the A¬ber-budget, A¬ber-long action-adventure picture about the man in the mask and the madman and the city around them, and the short, quiet, naturally lighted film about a girl trying to get to Alaska with her dog. As amazing as elements of “The Dark Knight” were, there's something almost more amazing about being able to see a movie as decisively independent as “Wendy and Lucy” in a big theater. Little heroes like Wendy can still stand against the super ones, it seems.

Blink and you miss the plot: Wendy (Michelle Williams, whose impressive development as an actor is evident when held against that of her “Dawson's Creek” cohorts such as Katie Holmes) is driving to Alaska with her dog, Lucy, to find work. She has little money and sleeps in her car, which breaks down in a Pacific Northwest town. She and the dog are separated; she spends most of the 80-minute film trying to find her only companion.

Director Kelly Reichardt previously mined the territory of quiet desperation in her 2006 film, “Old Joy.” But that film, about two men spending a weekend camping and hiking, is an epic compared with “Wendy and Lucy.” This film is a short story that snuck into a movie house, and requires a recalibration of expectations — no madmen, no car chases (barely a car), no dramatic shots. But the movie speaks volumes on loneliness, the uncertainty of America and the feeling of being trapped by monetary considerations. The film feels a little trapped, too: Concise as it is, its story could be told in less than an hour, but then wouldn't have a place in the cinema, trapping it in somewhere in the festival circuit. So Reichardt stretched it to feature length, and we're rewarded with some fine acting by Williams and the others who appear briefly in her life, transients in their own way. But some of it drags, not unlike real life.

And while Reichardt has done a remarkable thing — creating an unremarkable world that is nevertheless moving, and getting it into theaters — still there's a feeling that perhaps this isn't the right message for the medium. This kind of realism, familiar to Italian and Danish cinema, is a refreshing addition to the blockbusters and even the small romantic comedies that litter theaters, but there are tiny epics out there that might better fill a director's naturally lighted lens. (R) HHHII S

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