When a quiet film is set outside of the big cities, it’s often called a “slice of life.” But that’s ultimately a condescending designation; to the millions of people residing on the prairies and in the small towns dotting the throughways, it is simply life, with a capital “L.” In the subtle and affecting Certain Women (based on stories by Maile Meloy), and following Meek's Cutoff and Night Moves, Kelly Reichardt — with her usual attention to the humanity among the mundane and absurd — again gives due credit to those who are too busy just getting on to care about big-city trivialities. Certain Women is a kind, loving and deeply moving portrait of big-hearted, small-town people.

Laura Dern is hilarious as Laura Wells, a lawyer who can’t shake deluded but sympathetic client Fuller (Jared Harris). Fuller needles at Laura’s personal boundaries, sobbing and chattering endlessly in her car during the long drive from Billings to Livingston, Montana, but Laura’s also reeling from her lover’s sudden halt on their affair. With hesitant, almost grimacing smiles, she lets herself get caught up in Fuller’s increasingly out-of-control drama, culminating in an off-kilter hostage situation that suggests a toned-down Coen Brothers flick. Reichardt’s become known for her often aching portraits of women pushed to extremes, but watching her deftly handle comedy is a pleasant surprise — will she stretch further in that direction again?

The humor also carries forward to the story of Gina Lewis, played by frequent Reichardt muse Michelle Williams. Gina’s a homesteading gentrifier driven to build an “authentic” house with her elderly, distant neighbor Albert’s (Rene Auberjonois) sandstone rubble. With just a few whittled-down words, Reichardt moves these characters into tricky and uncomfortable opposition: Old vs. New. Gina is both unlikable and sympathetic as a mother; she thinks constructing the perfect house in the perfect location will solve all her problems, but she’s also the type of person who enjoys a beautiful Montana view while discarding a cigarette butt on the pristine trail — completely oblivious to the damage she’s causing.

The breakout star here is actress Lily Gladstone. Her turn as Jamie — a lonely ranch hand tending to some horses through the long, bitter winter — is an overwhelming heartbreaker. In bulky Carhartts and flannel, Jamie is nervous and awkward, trying her best to sit still and go unnoticed in a mostly empty night-school class on law that she's in because she spotted people filing into the building and followed them, only to be charmed by a similarly awkward instructor, Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). Eager to connect, she sweetly tries to court the oblivious teacher with after-class trips to the diner, but she’s too shy to say much, and when she does, every word sounds as if she's either swallowing a laugh or a cry. Gladstone’s face, even at rest, is absorbing, and if she doesn’t get another worthy role soon, it will be a travesty.

Lily Gladstone; Credit: Courtesy of IFC Films

Lily Gladstone; Credit: Courtesy of IFC Films

The film swings back and forth on an emotional pendulum. Majestic, snow-covered mountains hover in the frame behind these characters as they navigate their relentless jobs and dead-end or unrequited love affairs, finding pleasure where they can. In a derelict mall, a female army recruiter watches the local Native tribes gathered to dance in their traditional garb — with moments like this, there is never a feeling of artifice or commentary, just the tenderness of people connecting in the only ways they know how.

Reichardt’s again working with her Meek’s Cutoff cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, whose expert framing of vast, sun-bleached landscapes in that film was as breathtaking as an Edgar Alwin Payne oil painting. Here, his color palette extends to the muted greens and yellows on the edges of frosted long grass, while Jeff Grace’s finger-plucked guitar carefully rides a not-too-melancholic line.

Montana, where these characters reside, is in places so boundless and flat that two drivers headed toward one another on a country road catch sight of the other’s headlights long before they eventually pass one another. This film, with a poetic pace that prizes the small, tender moments over the big ones, is like a vision of such headlights — something shiny in the dark, calling for attention, while all the bustling world is blacked out. In the pantheon of Reichardt, Certain Women ranks up there with her most complete and captivating work. Weeks removed from having seen this film the first time, I’m still gutted by Jamie’s quiet, ill-directed affection and hoping this fictional character will find her match. That’s the work of a masterful balladeer — convincing you to care long after the story is sung.

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