Quick! Name an important fiction film of the Great Recession. The Big Short? Yes, surprisingly fun, considering the topic. Margin Call? Love it, except for the Kevin Spacey parts, obviously. Inside Job? Yes, but that’s a documentary, silly. Might we propose Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy?
This small, quiet film was released in theaters 10 years ago this month, following an autumn that Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke famously called “the worst financial crisis in global history,” capping off a year in which almost 900,000 Americans lost their homes. (By 2011, 11.6 million households were underwater.)
The follow-up to Reichardt’s career-establishing Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy tracks the declining fortunes of a young white woman and her comparatively lucky dog. Traveling from Indiana to Alaska, where she hopes to find work in a fish cannery, Wendy suffers a small yet life-changing setback in the first minutes of the film: her car dies in a small Oregon town. With her meager, painstaking budgeting now off track, she shoplifts a can of dog food for her companion and winds up in jail, while Lucy is sent to the pound. What follows is a series of boring, bureaucratic nightmares that culminate in Lucy being adopted into what looks like a lower-middle-class home and Wendy hopping a train to God knows where.
When we first saw Wendy and Lucy, in December 2008, we had both completed our PhDs in English just months earlier and were staring down a bleak future of underemployment and austerity not unlike Wendy’s—making plans to move to wherever the jobs were, no matter how temporary. And when we started cowriting a book on Reichardt four years later—in slightly more bullish times—we retained those sensitivities to its portrayal of financial crisis.
Released last year, our book identifies Wendy as part of the so-called precariat: the unprecedentedly large class of downwardly mobile workers with no safety nets who emerged primarily from the Great Recession. We use concepts such as Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism” to explain Wendy’s grim insistence that she’s “just passing through [town]”—despite being largely stuck there—and to trace Reichardt’s larger interest in exploring how certain citizens cling to an American dream of respectability and success that nonetheless exceeds their grasp.
From our current vantage point of late 2018—post-Trump, post-Charlottesville—it looks like we were right about Wendy and Lucy being a Great Recession film, though perhaps not quite in the way we initially thought. While drafting the book, we registered but didn’t delve deeply into the remarkably consistent whiteness of Reichardt’s protagonists. Today, that characteristic seems not only crucial but ominous.
What we see in “Wendy and Lucy” is a fundamental refusal of connection, especially when it comes to economic deserts and blame.
We must begin with the film’s setting: a largely white, postindustrial town that has experienced a slow decline. Wendy gets the overview from a kindly security guard: “I don’t know what the people do all day. Used to be a mill, but it’s been closed a long time now.” This folksy explanation sounds a lot like the seemingly endless on-the-ground reportage from Kentucky, Wisconsin, and West Virginia that has crowded NPR’s airwaves and the New York Times’ pages since the 2016 election. Journalists, sociologists, and economists alike have tried to understand the “mysterious” political habits of now-precarious former union voters who’ve hitched their wagons to a billionaire strongman with a nativist platform.
Wendy and Lucy offers a gloss on this mysteriousness, and it’s one arguably less sympathetic than those found in NPR and New York Times reports. In the film, Reichardt ventures to look closely at how a politics of resentment is expressed in people’s daily habits of relating. In particular, what we can read in Wendy and Lucy’s tea leaves is a fundamental refusal of connection, especially when it comes to economic deserts and blame. The film stages Wendy’s encounters with her fellow Americans—a homeless man who offers to return her cans for deposit, a drug store security guard who lends her a phone—as possible connections she refuses. In each case, this protagonist asserts her difference from these individuals, whom she seems to think have strayed from the path of self-improvement she has embarked upon.
In one scene that exhibits human connection and hospitality in their most elemental forms, Wendy approaches a campfire blazing in the dark. Her dog has also sought the light, heat, and human companionship offered by the makeshift hearth, around which a gaggle of crusty punk kids has gathered. The punks’ situation is likely similar to Wendy’s. Indeed, one of them, played memorably by Will Oldham, has worked in the Alaskan canneries to which Wendy is headed. But rather than staying and sharing stories and the warmth of a fire, Wendy extracts herself and hurries on. She habitually severs potential connections, repeating variations on her refrain, “I’m not from around here. I’m just passing through.”
Thinking of Wendy in late 2018, it’s hard not to see her as someone frustrated by an unplanned detour from the path of opportunity, as someone who refuses to see her interests as aligned with those of the people around her. The film thus reads as a predictor of the lack of solidarity thinking, with, for example, non-elite whites voting to support tax cuts that’ll never trickle down to them—as if only to spite those who share their precarity but not their race.
Interviewed by Scientific American in mid-November 2016, Katherine Cramer, author of The Politics of Resentment, described what she’d been seeing in her work on white, rural anger in Wisconsin in similar terms:
Many times this resentment comes out as a feeling of, “I’m a deserving person, a hardworking American and the things I deserve are actually going to other people who are less deserving.” Donald Trump’s message really tapped into that sentiment. What I heard him saying was: You are right, you are not getting your fair share, you should be angry, you are a deserving, hardworking American and what you deserve is going to people who don’t deserve it. He pointed his finger at immigrants, the Chinese, bad trade deals, Muslims, uppity women. He gave people concrete targets, and it was a way of sparking anger and mobilizing support.
What we see in both Wendy’s refusal to connect with those around her—especially those she perceives as lower in status—and in the white Wisconsin voter is a refusal of the kind of ecological thinking to which Reichardt’s films are committed. In films like Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy, and Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt repeatedly depicts individuals who would be better off if only they worked together in their mutual interests.
However, being more of a realist than an idealist, Reichardt also shows the rejections of identification—between white 19th-century settlers and natives in Meek’s Cutoff, between a drifter and his more upstanding friend in Old Joy, and between a lost young woman and a homeless man in Wendy and Lucy—that prevent people from coming together. Such refusals to think connectedly, ecologically, characterize recent US politics, both at the local level and geopolitically, as we extract ourselves from treaties, global organizations, responsibility toward asylum seekers, and so on and so on.
Importantly, Wendy’s not the only character in Reichardt’s film to disdain those in comparable circumstances, nor the only one who demonstrates a failure of identification or lack of empathy. When Wendy steals the can of dog food, a young white male grocery store employee confronts her and insists on the harshest penalty for shoplifting. The film thereby offers a spokesperson for the rigid call to “law and order” that’s been so successful in whipping up Trump’s base.
The white drifter holding on to a dream of a better future while turning her nose up at her fellow members of the precariat isn’t totally unrelated to the roaring red hats at a Trump rally.
Refusing to listen to Wendy’s justifications and her promises to never return, the shop boy trots out a number of platitudes that now sound wearily familiar: “The rules apply to everyone equally,” and “If a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog.” Like the voters Cramer interviewed, he strongly identifies as a rule-follower harmed by rule-breakers who have been treated too softly by the law. It’s the kind of logic repeated by whites who insist on the legitimacy of their ancestors’s voyage to a new country while assuming the worst of newer migrants.
In each case, the Wisconsin voter and the young grocery employee refuse to see a possible connection with someone also poorly served by the present economic and political structures. It’s as true for this young man as it is for Wendy that the good factory jobs in the Pacific Northwest have gone and the town they’re stuck in is dying.
One thing the 2016 US presidential election has taught us is that white Americans like Wendy increasingly seem like an identity-based voting bloc. Though the right has traditionally loathed so-called identity politics, white voters, who traditionally distributed votes between the parties, have started voting more predictably along party lines (not unlike African Americans’ long-standing support for Democrats). That a party of whiteness should, in turn, support a white nationalist agenda has been surprising perhaps only in the blatancy and speed with which that agenda has taken hold.
At a rally in Houston on October 22 of this year, for example, Trump stirred supporters by proudly declaring himself a “nationalist,” urging a cheering audience to take up and spread the term: “Use that word. Use that word.” Now, Wendy and her dog aren’t neo-Nazis, though you never know—would-be brownshirts seem to be popping up everywhere these days. But the white drifter holding on to a dream of a better future while turning her nose up at her fellow members of the precariat isn’t totally unrelated to the roaring red hats at the Texas rally, either.
And it gets worse. Some thinkers are already predicting a new, even more dire crash. British economist Ann Pettifor, whose 2006 book The Coming First World Debt Crisis seems to have predicted the financial meltdown, envisions the aftermath as such: “Barring a genuine and viable left-wing alternative and solution to the problem, a predictable surge in right-wing nationalism will follow, as well as the scapegoating of immigrants, minorities, and other groups not responsible in any way for the trouble.”
But as bleak as Reichardt’s films—and the world—can be, we should credit her not just for offering a depressing Tiresian prophesy but also a small kind of hope. For one thing, her more explicitly political Night Moves (2013) offers a structure for political activity that might speak to our time. Concerned about ecological disaster, the activists at the center of this film debate strategies. A young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who commits a series of violent acts in the film insists on grand gestures. But his activist style is countered by another environmentalist who says, “For me it’s not thinking just one big thing. I’m focused on small plans. A lot of small plans …” As a counterpoint to the big, muscular, stupid plans like building a wall that characterize policy today, what gives us hope is coalition building—dispersed, little plans that connect the many of us.
And perhaps we will see some of those connections on display in Reichardt’s forthcoming film, First Cow. Centered on an Oregon fur trading post in the early 1800s, the film promises us white, Chinese, and Native American characters—settlers, immigrants, and natives—making do together. The film thereby also promises both a shift away from the whiteness of Wendy and Lucy and Reichardt’s other early films and an extension of her recent work with Native American actors, namely, Meek’s Cutoff’s Rod Rondeaux (Crow) and Certain Women’s Lily Gladstone (Blackfoot/Nez Perce). And it promises to continue Reichardt’s contributions to conversations around nationalism and settler colonialism, identification, and connectivity in times of great change.