Ah, American realism, how I hate thee. There is nothing pleasant about the works like "Wanda", which serves as Barbara Loden's only feature film that she wrote and directed. It resembles the works of John Cassavetes and that is enough to turn a whole section of viewers off of it. Perhaps it's best to see "Wanda" as a work that could walk hand-in-hand with "A Woman Under the Influence", which would debut four years after the release of this film.
Beginning with Wanda living in a coal mining town of Pennsylvania (I never heard mention of a state, but later research states it so....for whatever that's worth) the film takes a very apathetic look at our main character. She suffers from lethargy and indecision, much like the three teenagers in "Stranger Than Paradise". The first thing we see her to is hike a few miles to hit up an older man for money. He gives her a small bill and then sends her along her way. She shows up late to court where her husband is waiting so that they can divorce. While he waits for her, he tells the judge of her sins: she's lazy, a drunk, completely incompetent at raising children, uninvolved, and possibly even negligent. Once she finally arrives, rollers still pinned up in her hair, she doesn't say or do anything that will help her out...simply agreeing that the children should go with their father.
If there are three chapters to the movie, the first one is the one that meanders the most, the one that forces us to watch as Wanda slowly lets her life slip through her fingers. For as trivial and frustrating it is to watch Wanda blunder into bad decisions, Barbara Loden is very careful that we never completely condemn the character, that some inkling of humanity be left inside her. For a director who also plays the lead (and wrote the screenplay), Loden is very unflattering to herself as Wanda. She gives a good performance and seems a little more than unstable. Her portrayal is less crazy than Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence"; but it could be seen as similar. Both women are suffering in a delusion world where their actions (they think) are completely normal.
Out one night to drink her cares away, Wanda stumbles into a bad situation: she tries to use the bathroom at a bar and walks in on a robbery. She doesn't exactly realize what is happening until a few days later; but that much can be understood.
The man who is the criminal, Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins), takes Wanda along for the ride. He objectifies her and uses her for food and sex. It's very Freudian, these two's relationship. Wanda doesn't seem to get anything out of her company, besides having a strong voice tell her what to do, which may be what she has wanted all along.
Wanda's beauty often gains her the attention of many men, but her quirky almost psychotic clinging makes the men balk. Dennis, however, is just as crazy as she is...crazy in a normal way. He seems compulsive about the way he jumps from job to job, larceny to larceny. He never commits anything terribly serious until he gets the idea to rob a big bank: the quintessential goal for a gangster-in-training. But remember, this is American realism, so we might not get a fairytale ending.
The ending isn't really an ending, and how could it be. This genre doesn't like to tie things up in a bow, because what's the sense in that? There's no truth in that.
"Wanda" sees an oddity in director and lead actress. It has powerful performances and achieved exactly what it intended to do; but that doesn't make it enjoyable. There is power to it, however.
Posted by Micah Jones