By Greg Carlson
Despite accusations that not a lot happens in “Showing Up,” the Kelly Reichardt feature starring Michelle Williams that debuted at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, admirers of the brilliant filmmaker’s impressive oeuvre won’t be dissuaded from spending time in the Reichardt cinematic universe.
Reichardt’s feel for and investment in carefully observed minimalism has invited frequent critical placement within the slow cinema movement, but her characters are always so vitally invested in their own challenges that what “happens” is secondary to the ways these individuals come alive to the viewer.
“Showing Up” was released theatrically by A24 in April, but this week’s nominations for Best Feature and Best Lead Performance from the Gotham Awards should generate some fresh interest in the movie.
In her fourth film for the director, Williams plays Lizzy, a sculptor whose mundane administrative work (her boss happens to be her mother) at her alma mater – filmed at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, which ended operations in actual life in 2019 – covers the rent on the modest place owned by landlord and frenemy Jo (Hong Chau), a rival artist seemingly incapable of making arrangements for Lizzy’s hot water heater to be repaired.
Like so many creators who figure out how to keep the electricity on, Lizzy’s day job is less important to her than making art. The beautiful, small-scale clay sculptures of women that Lizzy is preparing for a solo show at a local gallery were made especially for the film by Portland-based sculptor Cynthia Lahti. Min Chen describes the pieces as “imperfect ceramic figures, gnarled in form and glazed with surreal hues, their sensibility tending toward abstraction as much as outsider art.”
Full disclosure: I always love learning about artists whose work “performs” in fictional space, and Lahti’s gorgeous objects are a key to understanding the inner workings of Lizzy.
The simmering tensions between Lizzy and Jo are underlined by Reichardt with sly comedic sensibility. The running gag of Lizzy’s nonstop complaints about her inability to take a warm shower is pure Reichardt – first world problems, we might think at first, but most people we know would be equally grumpy in Lizzy’s circumstances.
Of course, Lizzy’s passive-aggressive behavior reveals a deep-seated frustration at Jo’s more successful art practice. When Jo rescues a pigeon attacked by Lizzy’s cat, the treatment of the injured bird simultaneously escalates Lizzy’s resentment of Jo and ties the two women together as they take turns looking after their grounded patient.
Reichardt has poetically called her films “glimpses of people passing through,” but that modesty masks the depths of the hearts and souls we meet. In “Showing Up,” the “art life” frustrations experienced by Lizzy are rooted in her complicated family relationships. We instantly empathize with the complexities inherent in Lizzy’s conflicted attitudes regarding her brother Sean (John Magaro), who struggles with mental illness. Lizzy’s divorced parents live in denial of Sean’s deteriorating health even as they unnecessarily praise him as an artistic genius.
The microaggressions suffered by Lizzy don’t always lead us where we think the story will go. She’s a bird with a broken wing.
November 27th 2023
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