Twelve years after making her directorial debut, Kelly Reichardt exploded into the indie film consciousness in 2006 with the absurdly effective Old Joy, one of the least-seen, best-reviewed films of the last few years. With a virtually invisible but strong edge of political commentary and a story so delicate and whispy you might as well say it wasn't there at all, Reichardt's film about two middle-aged men unbonding during a trip to the woods could hardly be called groundbreaking - stylistically and structurally, it does all the things that virtually every independent drama of the last half-decade has done. The key difference between Old Joy and, say, the Mumblecore movement, is that each and every last thing in Old Joy actually works.

Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt's follow-up, is very nearly as good as her last, except for some X-factor that I haven't yet been able to name. Perhaps it's just the fact that Wendy and Lucy lacks the appeal of the new. Certainly, it's head and shoulders over just about every other indie or mock-indie to come out in 2008, and most of the big-budget Oscarbait, too. I hasten to add that it's surely not to all tastes: a tremendously generous viewer might suggest that the film has a slow pace, while a more antsy individual might prefer the phrase "goddamn boring", and when you get right down to it, this is a story about a woman who loses track of her dog and then tries to find it. Yet it is the manner of great films to be about more than they are about, and Wendy and Lucy turns the slimmest of narrative threads into a powerful meditation on the emotional cost of living. Sort of like Old Joy.

Wendy is a jobless woman in her late twenties, traveling from her sister and brother-in-law's home in Muncie, Indiana to Alaska, where she has heard of cannery jobs available to those without established residence or a work history, and she is played by Michelle Williams in one of the greatest performances of the year. Reichardt and her co-writer Jonathan Raymond (a former assistant to Todd Haynes; he also wrote the short stories that this and Old Joy were based upon) have given Williams an essentially blank canvas on which to perform, and the actress has responded with triumphant success. The key to Wendy - and from her, to the whole film - is that we're never given a Rosetta stone to unlock all of her motivations and learn everything about her as a person. We never learn much about her at all, in fact; she enters the film a blank canvas and leaves it much the same way.

Reichardt's choice in this film, one of the bravest and hardest to get away with, is to show us what happens and nothing more. Wendy's car stalls, and she loses track of her dog Lucy through a pronounced error in judgment, and she tries to fix both of those problems as quickly as possible to get out of whatver Oregon town it is that she's trapped in (the film was shot on the outskirts of Portland), so that she can get to Alaska and start work on establishing her new life. And that's all. Though Wendy has what probably count as soul-searching conversations with the parking lot guard at a local Walgreens (beautifully played by television journeyman actor Wally Dalton), she never explains who she is, why she has ended up at this place in her life, or what her long-term goals are. It takes a lot of trust for both the filmmaker and the audience to even think about this kind of narrative, but when it works, boy does it ever work. Reichardt's stripped-down aesthetic is focused on one single task: to depict what happens, and allow us to decide what that means. Wendy never explains herself to us because that is not something that Wendy would do; as we observe her dealing with a particular crisis, we learn only how she deals with that crisis and nothing more. At the end of Wendy and Lucy, this is the only thing I know for sure about the protagonist: she really, really loves the hell out of that dog.

With no editorial hand to guide her, Williams is given the freedom to create Wendy however she sees fit. The result is probably the most naturally performance I've seen all year, a woman who is clearly worn-out by a lifetime of shit but without the self-pity that would lead her to find some easier way of living. To call it the actress's best work ever is a laughable understatement; but even granting that, it's oddly exciting to see someone with the looks and the career to be a matinee star push herself into such challenging and (one assumes) professionally unrewarding territory. This, in a nutshell, is how I feel about Williams's performance: though I know nothing about Wendy's backstory, I still get the sense that I know who she is, kind of, just through the look on the actress's face, the way she holds herself as she walks, and her body language when she's talking to other people.

Wendy and Lucy is ultimately a story about people on the bottom rung dealing with it, even in the face of losing the tiny scraps they have. It could arguably be called a political movie for that reason, but I don't really see that as Reichardt's intent: except insofar as making a "forgotten man" story is inherently political. The recent economic issues perhaps give the film's cavalcade of losses seem a bit more urgent, but it would still work without that, and to a certain degree it might even work better At heart, Wendy and Lucy is a documentary work: take a type of person who doesn't usually get to star in a movie, and watch her for a little bit. Simply that.

Despite the austerity of the film's screenplay and direction (lots of silent, long takes), it shouldn't be assumed that Wendy and Lucy is therefore a cheap and gritty slice of realism. On the contrary, it's tremendously beautiful and impressionistic, proof that you don't need a big budget or star DP to make a visually appealing film (the cinematographer, Sam Levy, hasn't ever shot a film I've heard of, let alone seen). Taking place in what we might cautiously identify as late summer, the film is all full of green and gold, bright in a way that presents an unexpected contrast to the dour story being told. It looks lively, and that keeps the film from descending into outright miserabilism. If one were so inclined, one might even mount the argument that the look of the film is its argument: as much awfulness and frustration as we have to deal with, there is still life and light. That doesn't make Wendy and Lucy a lighthearted work, mind you, but I like to think that it makes it optimistic.