Discover more from The Weekly Stuff Wordcast
Review: "Showing Up" is another winner from Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams
A film that's both extremely small and impossibly big
Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up is at once both a very small and an impossibly big film. Small because it is so intensely personal and low-to-the-ground, a relatively uneventful story about a few days in the life of a frustrated artist as she prepares for a show, where the stakes mainly amount to how much discomfort she feels with her life and how much discomfort we, the audience, are made to feel in turn. And yet it is also impossibly big because, in classic Reichardt fashion, this small slice of life is illustrated in such endlessly rich detail that it gradually takes on all the fraught, complex immediacy of real life, and comes to ask so many fundamental, unanswerable questions about the maddening grind of daily existence.
There are so many things on this film’s mind that I imagine no two reviews will hone in on quite the same set of ideas. Obviously, it is a movie ‘about’ art, in that art is the profession and milieu main character Lizzy is enmeshed in – she is an artist, her father is a retired artist, her mother runs an art school where she herself is also employed, and her landlady/frenemy is a celebrated graduate of said art school – but the film isn’t about art as an end product or a set of aesthetic ideas (although the art we do see from Lizzy, all clay sculpture pieces, is gorgeous, created by real-life Oregon-based artist Cynthia Lahti). Instead, the film is about art as a process, as a thing one engages in amidst all the other contingencies and coincidences and irritations of everyday life, how its creation coincides with the spaces in which it is made and with the people one brushes against during its creation. Showing Up is, like past Reichardt films, about the small indignities that pile up over time, and in this case, the small indignities that add up to both frustrate and compel the artistic process. It’s a film about how life is at once the fuel for art and the inhibitor of art, the series of small quotidian challenges that make art a practical struggle to create – to make time and space for amidst the crucible of basic adult living – and an outlet for making the world worth living in.
Michelle Williams is the star here, and while she’s always great, she is at her best working with Reichardt, who always gives her the space to perform quietly and subtly and with ample time to develop the emotions and physicality and voice of the character. The whole movie is so deeply lived-in and uncomfortably real, no part of it more so than Williams’ performance. Reichardt is so good at building space for Williams to create her own art – performance – that in the final scenes, when the tension of her character’s many familial, artistic, and interpersonal stressors are at their height, you can practically feel her shaking apart at the seams, even as Williams’s physicality really only gestures very subtly and quietly at that inner turmoil.
Three other stars here I must note: First is the production design, credited to Anthony Gasparro, through which so much of the film’s story is told. Reichardt makes it clear we should be paying attention to these spaces from the opening credits, which play out over a series of pencil and watercolor sketches on the wall, attuning us to look closely at the details the movie is built from. It is endlessly rewarding to do so – every space, every building, every color, every costume choice tells a story here. That Williams’ character spends much of the early section wearing yellow crocs with heavy wool socks is one of those details that tells you everything you need to know. The movie is full of rewarding little nooks and crannies like that, especially at the art school where she works.
Second is the injured pigeon Lizzy, through a convoluted series of steps, winds up responsible for, and who is her most significant co-star throughout (and possibly the character’s most emotionally rewarding and healthy relationship). I was delighted to learn, watching and reading the end credits, that the pigeon was an animatronic made for the production, which makes him the best special effect developed for a movie so far this year.
Third is the great Hong Chau, who increasingly seems to have a Midas touch when it comes to choosing projects, as the artistically gifted landlady I can’t decide if the film actually wants us to hate, or only means us to feel leftover resentment towards from Lizzy, who offloads a lot of her frustration onto this person who is a very easy mark for it. Either way, it is a tremendous performance.
What a splendid film. Gloriously and rewardingly slow, beautifully detailed, and quietly but extremely funny, building to its surprising punchlines with clockwork precision. This is one of the year’s best films, and another high watermark in the Reichardt/Williams collaborative filmography, one of the richest director/actor pairings of my lifetime.
Thanks for reading The Weekly Stuff Wordcast! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.