Wendy and Lucy opens Friday in select theaters

In Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a young woman “just passing through,” as she’s fond of putting it, a small town in Oregon.

She’s on her way to Alaska, where she hopes to find work in a cannery. She’s taking the trip with her dog, Lucy, and she budgets for every miniscule expense in her notebook. We get a couple of quick glimpses at that notebook: Wendy jots a note to herself about a cannery in Alaska that she’s heard is preferable to the others. We see that she doodles flowers. And, perhaps most importantly, we see her list of expenses and deductions as she manages the few dollars she has left to get where she’s going. The way Wendy itemizes the purchase of a hot dog makes it clear that any unnecessary expenses are unconscionable.

So when her car breaks down and (without revealing the film’s low-key plot turns) a few other things go wrong, Wendy’s options are limited. This is a character who sleeps in her car in a parking lot with her dog, and that’s when things are going well for her.

There is no other background informationeverything we learn about Wendy comes from how she deals with the events of the two days in which the film takes place. The reason why Wendy, who seems a capable, tough-enough young woman, needs to travel hundreds of miles from home to perform manual labor is left unexplained. It would be convenient to say that Wendy and Lucy is a film about the current economic collapse, and that real-world fallout has made explanation of Wendy’s poverty unnecessary. But Reichardt made her film in 2007, back when Iraq was the most important issue in the country, and I don’t think the relevance of her film is contingent on the condition of oil prices and mortgages.

Wendy and Lucy has a relaxed pace, partly because it’s shot from angles wide enough to let all the action of a scene play out in one shot. The pace, the worn-in clothing, and the snapshot realism of the locations give Wendy and Lucy a naturalistic feel, but it’s not just a mood piece. In fact, what I most love about the movie is Reichardt’s presentation of a clear, consistent theme, using Wendy’s predicament to examine an individual’s relationship to rules and institutions.

I happen to share Reichardt’s belief (as evidenced in the film) that people are basically good as long as they’re thinking for themselves, but it’s the way she communicates this idea that makes me love her film. A grocery store, a parking lot, an auto-repair shop embody the various arrangements by which the world is organized around rules that stand in the way of good intentions and people who would like to help. Wendy shoplifts, and an employeean adolescent Aryan in madrascatches her and urges his manager to turn her over to the cops. It’s clear from the resignation on his face that the manager doesn’t want to call the police on Wendy, but his employee reminds him “we have a policy.” The policy trumps doing the nice thing. It’s easy to hate the snotty kid, but I don’t think that Reichardt blames him; he’s just trapped in a slavish devotion to the rules.

Each interaction in Wendy and Lucy is charged with this idea of characters’ actions and their relationship to regulation. A mechanic (Will Patton, who gives a knockout performance without leaving his chair and who has the funniest one-way phone conversation I’ve ever heard) tells Wendy he’ll charge her the same amount for towing her car from across the street as he would if he towed it from across town. Them’s the rules. A security guard pushes Wendy off a parking lot because he has to, even though there are literally no other cars to make room for. The most effective visualization of the film’s anti-authoritarian theme is this security guard presiding over a vacant expanse of white-lined concrete. It’s perfect and absurd.

In the world of Wendy and Lucy (and, I think, in the real one), everyone must organize their actions within systems defined by the policies of employers, governments or personal hang-ups. By the end of the film, I couldn’t help feeling like nothing terrible would happen to Wendynothing terrible would happen to anybodyif people were allowed to simply act on their own good intentions. As a worldview, this might be reductive, but I believed it completely while watching Wendy and Lucy.