Wendy and Lucy begins with the title characters walking through the woods, by all appearances happy. Michelle Williams is Wendy, who hums as she watches Lucy, her short-haired yellow mutt, trot ahead. The scene is actually a respite from a state of near-desperation, and worse is yet to come.

Wendy and Lucy begins with the title characters walking through the woods, by all appearances happy. Michelle Williams is Wendy, who hums as she watches Lucy, her short-haired yellow mutt, trot ahead. The scene is actually a respite from a state of near-desperation, and worse is yet to come.

Director Kelly Reichardt follows Wendy, on her way to Alaska to find work and counting every penny, as her car breaks down and she shoplifts some food for Lucy to save money.

It's a decision that's awfully costly; after getting caught and paying a fine she can't afford, Wendy returns to find Lucy gone. The ensuing hours are a grind of mechanic's visits, calls to the pound, bus schedules and a trip to the woods to sleep that turns scary.

Natural, observational, and with the singular focus of living hand-to-mouth, Reichardt's work unfolds with a profoundly genuine sense of the real-life stories it reflects. Obviously, pet owners will find it extra-heartbreaking, and they'll probably want to rush home afterwards for some quality time with their animal friends.

Williams, who carries virtually every scene, plays this just right. She lives up to the promise that's gone underappreciated with her non-standard career choices, nailing the agony of having no good options left, and how much work can be involved in being poor.