Wendy and Lucy

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Director Kelly Reichardt; Release date: 6 March

Or "One Woman and her Dog", as this film could alternatively be called. The title refers to the one loving relationship in the industrially depressed Oregon in which Wendy and her canine companion Lucy are stuck for the length of this film.

Along with the film Frozen River (which hopefully will come out in Britain), Wendy and Lucy has been touted as a new form of filmmaking in times of US recession. The film is certainly a welcome departure for US independent cinema. It has indulged in recent years too much in the "smart" film, such as Napoleon Dynamite and I [heart] Huckabees, which revel with a smirking sense of superiority in the superficial quirkiness of the somewhat inane characters they present.

The fairly slow, episodic observation of life characteristic of independent US cinema is put to use in Wendy and Lucy for a bleaker criticism of modern US society as the land of no opportunity. On the way from Indiana to the frozen north of Alaska in search of a job, the film follows the misfortunes that befall Wendy when her car won't start, leaving her stranded in Oregon, homeless and alone except for her dog.

The nameless town is one where the jobs have left, leaving behind the rusting and disused wreckage of the industries that were the life of the community. This is a true representation of towns across the breadth of the US. Manufacturing has been run into the ground for decades, leaving entire communities bereft and ignored, foreshadowing the crisis that will spread as the current depression bites.

What is notable as Wendy wanders among the blight is how the system is designed to further degrade those already suffering, in whom official society only takes an interest to prohibit and punish. The only scene in which one is reminded that Wendy lives in the world's richest country is in a supermarket, where endless rows of shining products lead her to a temptation that sends her luck spiralling downwards.

Wendy and Lucy owes a conscious debt to the great Italian neo-realist films, particularly Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, which are similarly committed to showing the plight of the marginalised and powerless. Like those films, Wendy and Lucy chooses not to offer any clear diagnosis of the problem or sense of social change, concentrating on the smaller details of life.

Although the characters live among ugliness, the film achieves a certain elegant tenderness. The figure of Wendy, alone and unable to get anywhere, is representative of a far wider problem in the US - and global neoliberal society - but the film ends on the possibility of hope. It is, however, a hope that is tentative and individual amid a social problem that is deepening and widespread.