Small Wonder

Amy Taubin on Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up

Kelly Reichardt, Showing Up, 2022, video, color, sound, 108 minutes. Lizzie (Michelle Wiliams).

THE MOST EVOCATIVE WORD with which to describe Kelly Reichardt’s films is “homespun,” in the sense of something that is handmade and textured, the opposite of slick, glossy, or eye-catching. Reichardt is a prolific filmmaker, at least among those who make small independent features. Until now, her most fully realized and deeply affecting works were Wendy and Lucy (2008) and the third section of Certain Women (2016), a two-hander for Kristen Stewart and the remarkable Lily Gladstone in her first substantial role. Wendy and Lucy stars Michelle Williams, as does Reichardt’s latest film, Showing Up, and once again, the trust between director and actor is evident throughout this absurdly elevating, close to perfect movie.

Williams plays Lizzie, a Portland-based ceramicist who lives with a cat in a cramped apartment over a garage that’s she’s turned into a studio. She rents the space from her longtime friend Jo (Hong Chau), who lives next door and is also an artist. The two women make sculptural work that falls somewhere between crafts and fine art, if such a distinction is valid. Showing Up is all about Lizzie; Jo is merely her foil. What in a lesser film could simply be a running gag about broken plumbing becomes a contextual clue that partly answers the question of why some talented people have substantial careers and others, who may be even more gifted and dedicated, go unnoticed. Specifically, Lizzie hasn’t been able to take a shower at home in weeks because her hot water heater is broken. It’s Jo’s responsibility to fix it, but every time Lizzie asks her to do something, Jo answers “I’m on it” and walks away. Jo only shows up for Jo, and that’s why she has two shows opening in the same week and already has some kind of commitment from a New York dealer. Her work—collages of yarn, fabric, and metal—is flamboyant, and it takes up a lot of space. Lizzie, by contrast, makes small, delicate figures of women, their torsos twisted and their limbs flung into extreme positions, as if to escape the pull of gravity. (Lizzie’s works are by Cynthia Lahti: Jo’s by Michelle Segre.) Given that Williams’s Lizzie is stolidly earthbound, we understand these figures as projections of her inner struggle to throw off the weight of her circumstances and take flight by making art.

Showing Up—by the end of the film you’ll understand the layers of wordplay in the title—may seem like a simple character study, but in fact it is a carefully plotted narrative in which the hero faces a series of obstacles on the way to achieving a goal. And what’s more, a moment of transcendence which we share. The script is by Jon Raymond, who wrote five of Reichardt’s earlier films: the wonderful Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy and the wooden, flatfooted Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Night Moves (2013), and First Cow (2019). I thought Reichardt would never recover from these attempts to paint on big canvases with limited resources. But in returning to a place and a way of life that she knows intimately, she’s made a film that is much more than external activity and dialogue. In collaboration with Williams—and with her longtime cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, who has found a way to give digital capture the softness of 16 mm—Reichardt does what few films or works of visual art allow: She gives us time and space to access an inner world that is unspoken and unseen except in such gestures as a hand prodding and smoothing a hunk of clay, or using a broom to sweep a wounded pigeon out the bathroom window. The pigeon, who mistakenly flew into Lizzie’s apartment and was mauled by her cat, becomes a burden she bears throughout an increasingly harrowing week during which every family member and friend in her supposed support system just doesn’t come through. Nevertheless, they all show up for her opening—the pigeon too—and although every one of them is capable of causing havoc in the magical world that Lizzie has created in this tiny gallery—well, I won’t give the ending away, except to say that transcendence is sometimes the result of the anticipated worst not happening, and a change in the direction of one’s gaze.

Showing Up is currently playing in US theaters.