Mark Harris tells us why the tiny Michelle Williams film's hold on reality means it won't be an Oscar contender

By Mark Harris
Updated January 23, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

‘Wendy and Lucy’ keeps it real

Here’s a one-question movie quiz to start the year. It will test your problem-solving skills. Ready? Go!

You are a young woman traveling to Alaska, desperately looking for work. You are poor. You own nothing but a dying car, a beloved dog, the clothes you can carry on your back, and a journal in which you keep track of your expenditures, which are rapidly depleting your meager savings. Then, suddenly, everything goes wrong, and you have enough money to do only one of these four things:

(1) Repair your car.
(2) Feed your dog.
(3) Feed yourself.
(4) Find a room for the night.
This isn’t Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the wish-fulfillment game show that sparks the plot of this season’s exuberant Oscar front-runner Slumdog Millionaire. So forget about using your Phone-a-Friend. Your friends are probably broke too. There’s no 50/50 either, because eliminating two of those four necessities still doesn’t solve your problem. This is Who Wants to Survive?, so you’re allowed only one lifeline: Ask the Audience.

And that is exactly what the soft-spoken, tough-minded independent film Wendy and Lucy, one of the very best and timeliest films of 2008, does. As you confront the dilemma of a lonely, isolated young woman, played with unsparing honesty by Michelle Williams, you don’t get to ask how she got herself into this mess, or whether this is ”her fault,” or any of the other things that would allow you to distance yourself from her. And because this is not a Hollywood movie, Wendy is not going to become a prostitute.

So what should she do? What would you do?

Despite raves (it was recently named the year’s top movie in a poll of 97 critics conducted by Film Comment), Wendy and Lucy almost certainly won’t figure in this year’s Oscar contest — in part because, like Wendy, it doesn’t have the money. A tiny movie doesn’t stand a chance in a race in which it costs tens of millions just for a film like Slumdog Millionaire to announce that it owns 2008’s underdog slot.

With contradictions like that shaping the race, perhaps it’s appropriate that this year’s leading Oscar contenders are largely fantasies. It’s that kind of year. Even 2008’s most acclaimed nonfiction film, the stunning Man on Wire, begins with Philippe Petit announcing, ”My story is a fairy tale.” That’s okay; fantasy isn’t necessarily the enemy of reality. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button explicitly presents itself as a fable read aloud from a book, but it’s one with a surprisingly stoic view of the transience of life and the inevitability of death. The Dark Knight uses caped crusaders and costumed supervillains to explore decidedly unfanciful realms of anarchy, demagoguery, and vigilantism. And WALL-E deploys adorable robots to announce some inconvenient truths about consumerism, sloth, and environmental catastrophe. Personally, I’ll take social commentary embedded in fantasy any day over fantasy pretending to be social commentary (see Gran Torino, which peddles the delusion that even the bigot next door has Something to Teach Us All about heroism and self-sacrifice. No, he doesn’t.)

As for Slumdog Millionaire, let me plant one small mosquito bite on this mostly delightful lark. At a time of worldwide recession, Slumdog‘s sentimental notion that poverty can be overcome with plucky determination feels designed to camouflage unpleasant facts rather than illuminate them. If an education via the school of hard knocks really provided all the random knowledge you need to win 20 million rupees, a lot of undernourished, undereducated poor people would be much happier than they are. The idea that even if you fall in a pile of crap, you can come up smelling like a million bucks (this is not a figure of speech but an actual plot description) never seems to go out of style. And while it’s hard to resist this movie’s ardent love-conquers-all romanticism, it’s also hard to look at those Mumbai slums and then swallow the premise that getting rich is just about stick-to-itiveness. Even in a fantasy.

Slumdog is a movie that the heroine of Wendy and Lucy would probably love. For two hours, it would allow her to escape her troubles and get happy, which is one (but only one) of the things movies are for. There’s nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, she can’t afford a ticket.