"Wendy and Lucy," a drama directed by Kelly Reichardt, is a fine vehicle for Michelle Williams, cast as a woman who, traveling with her dog, Lucy, gets derailed in Oregon on her trip to Alaska.

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Like a minimalist female version of “Into the Wild,” Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” tells the story of an alienated Lower 48 American who leaves family behind to find peace in Alaska.

Michelle Williams, an Oscar nominee for her memorably expressive work as the late Heath Ledger’s wife in “Brokeback Mountain,” gives another luminous performance as Wendy Carroll, an Indiana woman who intends to reach Alaska in her unreliable Honda. Lucy is her dog, who is her best and possibly only friend.

When their car breaks down in Oregon, Wendy makes some dubious decisions about what to do with what little cash she has on her. She ends up paying a $50 fine for shoplifting dog food, but when she returns to the scene of the crime, Lucy is gone.

The rest of the movie deals with her attempts to find Lucy in a Pacific Northwest neighborhood that’s not exactly bursting with compassion for destitute passers-by. She gets some grudging help from a car mechanic (Will Patton) and a more helpful boost from a chatty security guard (Walter Dalton), who helps her move the car and phone the pound.

Much less helpful is the priggish young grocery clerk (John Robinson), who catches Wendy shoplifting and insists on making “an example” of her. If she can’t afford dog food, he declares, she shouldn’t have a dog. He’s consumed with contempt.

In almost any other movie, you’d expect him to apologize when they meet again, but he’s unrepentant, a judgmental child who usually gets his way — even with a boss who might have been lenient under other circumstances.

Reichardt and her actors are at their best in a scene in which Wendy’s fate is decided by the kid’s less-than-subtle power games. She also delights in the different personalities Patton expresses on the phone, and in the gradual evolution of Dalton’s paternal behavior. And the dog is a charmer.

Will Oldham, the singer and co-star of Reichardt’s much-acclaimed previous film, “Old Joy,” turns up in a cameo role in an ominous prologue that suggests a dire future. An epilogue isn’t much more hopeful, though it suggests a streak of independence that may sustain Wendy.

Always at the center of the movie is Williams’ performance, which may be the best thing she’s done. Whether she’s warily cleaning up in a service-station restroom, or staring at the trains that offer a different travel option, or establishing her rapport with Lucy, Williams bravely explores the soul of a creature who’s both gentle and determined.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com