Some films are murals, some are sketches. "Wendy and Lucy," a minimalist character study starring Michelle Williams, is a deft, compact piece that makes every shot and moment count.

Wendy, making her way from Indiana to Alaska with her dog, Lucy, could be mistaken for a waif, but her slender figure and shy, sensitive eyes conceal her strength of character. She's heading north to work in a fish cannery, demanding work in an unforgiving environment. We encounter Wendy halfway to her goal, in a nondescript Oregon town, where car trouble interrupts her journey. We learn from her conversation with some drifters that Alaska "needs people," and Wendy needs work. She also needs to give and receive love, and Lucy fits the bill better than most of the humans she encounters.

Much of the film follows Wendy through her solitary paces as she washes up in a gas station restroom, collects soda cans to sell at a recycling center, and plays fetch with her best friend. She has a bit of money, but her budget doesn't allow for a cracked S-belt. Wendy is too proud to ask for charity, and the people she meets are mostly sympathetic, but unable to offer much more than good wishes.

One problem triggers another, Wendy makes a few bad decisions, and soon she's carried away by an avalanche of trouble that separates her from her beloved Lucy.

Proceeding to Alaska alone is unthinkable, but locating Lucy without much cash, transportation or a cell phone is an uphill battle. Wendy's dilemma touches some of the townspeople -- a pretty young woman in difficulty inspires chivalry in unlikely places -- but as a worker at the local animal shelter reminds Wendy, "It's up to you." Her situation could inspire one of Tom Waits' low-key lowlife laments, or one of Edward Hopper's lonely cityscapes.

Options shrinking, she must find her own way out. She leaflets the city with missing-dog fliers bearing the plaintive headline "I'm Lost!" Wendy lets us know how much she treasures the animal when she gives the terse description, "yellow gold." Writer/director Kelly Reichardt constructs her film of such haiku touches.

We get only a few clues about Wendy's background. A phone call to her sister and brother-in-law hints at problems back home, but we're left to speculate what they might be. We see her deliberately doing wrong and brazenly denying it. Is this a rare transgression or habit?

Williams' stupendous, subtle performance doesn't divulge such secrets. She is playing a character who has learned to be guarded around people. Her emotions only crack open when she's safely hidden behind a locked lavatory door, or talking to her dog. In the course of an hour and 20 minutes, we learn just a little about this lost, lonesome soul, but it's sufficient to make us care.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186