Since 1923, when the heroic German shepherd Rin Tin Tin began a lucrative movie career, dogs have proven reliable film entertainers, often in ramshackle comedies like Turner & Hooch and The Shaggy Dog. But in the movies as in real life, dogs do pathos even better than comedy. That's why the best dog movies are dog melodramas, which can reduce even the sternest among us to gasping tears. "Who cried when Old Yeller died?" Bill Murray asks a team of Army recruits in the 1981 comedy Stripes. Every hand goes up. We do love our dogs.
Which brings me to Lucy, the amiable mongrel in the bleak melodrama Wendy and Lucy. Directed and co-written by Kelly Reichardt, who made 2006's admired Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy is about that guileless way dogs have of inspiring love, devotion - and guilt.
Lucy belongs to a young woman named Wendy. As the film begins, Wendy has limped into an Oregon town in a battered Accord. She is en route from Indiana to Alaska, where she hears there are jobs. She parks the car in a Walgreens lot, and there she and Lucy spend the night.
Then the trouble begins for Wendy, who is played by Michelle Williams. Williams starred in Dawson's Creek, and she had a poignant turn as Heath Ledger's hapless wife in Brokeback Mountain. There is poignancy in her performance here, but also the grim practicality and wariness you'd expect of someone who sleeps in parking lots.
Wendy is awakened by a security guard (Wally Dalton) who tells her, not unkindly, that she'll have to move on. But the car won't start. So the two push it onto a nearby street where, in a heartbreaking moment, Wendy feeds Lucy a breakfast of the last crumbs from a rumpled dog-food bag. Lucy gives Wendy a plaintive look.
Next Wendy commits the petty crime that begins a long, sad series of events: She shoplifts dog food. The imperious grocery clerk who catches her says that people who can't afford dogs shouldn't keep them, and he's probably right. But Wendy didn't ask to be destitute. And she loves her dog.
We're never sure why Wendy is destitute. Part of the film's artfulness is its stinginess with details of her past. A tense conversation on a pay phone suggests a troubled family. That is about all we know.
Instead Reichardt focuses on Wendy's current plight as it achingly unfolds. Wendy is arrested. Lucy goes missing. Wendy can't give her address and phone number at the dog pound, because she has neither. She takes the car in for repairs but then must sleep in a park, where there are horrors. All the while she tallies what is left of her money, and you've never seen arithmetic so desperate.
As you're watching, you may yourself be tallying Wendy's mistakes. No, she shouldn't steal. Blaming the grocery clerk doesn't make much sense. The Alaska scheme never really adds up.
But for people in situations like Wendy's - and amid rising unemployment, I fear there will be more and more such people - there aren't all that many good choices. Instead there are less-bad choices. As the film reaches its climax, Wendy makes a less-bad choice regarding her sweet dog. I cried when Old Yeller died, and I cried at Wendy's choice.