Kelly Reichardt has carved out a heroic corner for herself, as a quiet warrior-queen of true American indie cinema, in film after film, from Old Joy (2006) to First Cow (2019), making the stone-cold case for hold-your-horses present-ness, vexed interiority, and stories the size of a real week of your life. With her new film Showing Up, she’s finally made a movie about herself, as a working artist– except it’s not about filmmaking, it’s not an ego trip, and it’s not at all heroic. It is as much a miniature as any one of the three stories in her film Certain Women (2016), but it expands in your head afterwards, like an encounter you had with private people you’re still trying to fully understand.
Michelle Williams, whose temperamental gravity and troubled glare Reichardt has capitalized on in three previous films, stars as Lizzy, a tightly-wound thirtysomething loner who defines herself as a sculptor, but whose life seems to be in a frustrated holding pattern, largely out of her control. We piece it together detail by detail, and none of it seems calculated: she crafts female clay figures – her “girls” – in relative obscurity, using a garage as a studio, and otherwise paying her rent with a desk job at her alma mater art school, overseen by her mother (Maryann Plunkett).
She’s hurriedly, anxiously prepping an exhibition of modest pieces she hopes will shake off her career’s inertia, just as her got-it-together landlord, Jo (Hong Chau), sets up two simultaneous exhibitions of her huge, garish, attention-getting found-materials installations. But life is always throwing sand in Lizzy’s gears: she has to sneak showers at school because she has no hot water at home; her cat mauls a pigeon that Jo decides to rescue, uploading the responsibility for its care on Lizzy; her father (a tolerable Judd Hirsch; Reichardt does not let actors indulge) drifts through an irresponsible retirement. And, most of all, her brother Sean (John Magaro) is a paranoid unemployed artist clearly on the edge of full-blown psychosis. Lizzy genuinely worries about Sean, and wonders why nobody else seems to. While she is generally bedeviled by the constant interferences around her, she’s also a little confused, as to how some people seem to coast through life while others get mudbound.
A low-budget filmmaker can sympathize. Reichardt’s film moves like art-making – one tiny decision at a time. It’s full of process, and it can give you a yen for the buzz of handcrafting “flow,” in any medium. Around Lizzy, the campus of the Oregon College of Art and Craft plays itself, rather beautifully, and Reichardt’s film dallies and saunters through its open-air classrooms and woodsy courtyards like a semi-stoned macrame student looking for inspiration. The pacing is super-relaxed, and so are the personnel, including Andre Benjamin (as a sweet kiln master) and James LeGros (as a teacher), plus a lot of real craft students, hanging out more than inhabiting roles. Lizzy is dug in with this crunchy community, but her beleaguered, tetchy personality sticks out – at least to us, suggesting a life of solitude and discontentment going forward. Lizzy is a serious artist, maybe even a good one, but the kind that really doesn’t stand a chance in the world at large, if she ever decides to leave that school.
Williams is Williams: nobody can de-glam like her, and Lizzy is an unshowy creation, the kind of woman we would tend to overlook in such a busy creative company. The actress is virtually a national treasure by now. Name another American star upon whom you can rely to always deepen every scene she’s in, often just with a gaze. She does her homework in four dimensions, and often seems to be in her own movie (in The Fablemans, her Mitzi Fabelman thought she was in her own movie, too). In Showing Up, the veracity of Lizzy’s quiet struggle oozes out of William’s every move.
Showing Up doesn’t have the iron-maiden narrative grip nor the heartbreak of Wendy and Lucy (2008), for my money Reichardt’s most crushing film, and maybe Williams’ most pungent work. But it is, at the very least, time spent with a character and in a milieu most movies fastidiously ignore. Co-written, as usual, with novelist Jon Raymond, but having the air of improv, the film sometimes sidles up to the idea of satirizing the fringy contemporary craft-art world that the OCAC traffics with, but Reichardt’s gritty warmth and arm’s length respect for her people lets us crack a smile without feeling superior. Another sign of her immanent humanity: the empathic esteem in most of her films for animals. Showing Up is cluttered and even gently aggravated by unmanipulated dogs, cats and birds, each occupying their own arc, too, itself an act of good filmmaking karma.
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