Producers: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino and Anish Savjani Director: Kelly Reichardt Screenplay: Jon Raymond and Kelly Reichardt Cast: Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, Maryann Plunkett, John Magaro, André Benjamin, James Le Gros, Judd Hirsch, Heather Lawless, Matt Malloy, Amanda Plummer, Theo Taplitz, Orianna Milne, Lauren Lakis, Daniel Rodriguez, Jean-Luc Boucherot, Ted Rooney, Ben Coonley, Chase Hawkins and Izabel Mar Distributor: A24
Perhaps there’s a bit of self-portraiture in Kelly Reichardt’s new film. Reichardt makes small-scaled, acutely observed, deliberately paced pictures that attract critical attention but few viewers; the protagonist of “Showing Up,” Lizzy (Michelle Williams, a frequent collaborator), is something of her mirror image. She’s a Portland sculptor living in an insular artistic community (the film was shot at the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts) who’s doggedly putting the final touches on pieces for an upcoming gallery exhibition–finely crafted though rough-edged little statues of women in varied poses that are striking but unlikely to attract broad notice. (They’re the work of artist Cynthia Lahti.) The picture is another skillful example of Reichardt’s minimalist style, but no likelier to appeal to a wide audience than her previous work (or Lizzy’s creations).
The writer-director has described her films as nothing more than glimpses of people going through their lives, and it’s a description that fits this one well. Unassertive and rather mopey, Lizzy seems to brighten slightly when doing her art, yet responds with only meek protest when one of her statuettes gets overheated and discolored in the kiln run by perpetually upbeat Eric (André Benjamin), for whom every piece an artist brings him for treatment is “great.” She lives with a cat that pretty much has the run of the apartment she rents from another artist, extrovert Jo (Hong Chau), who’s also preparing an upcoming show and exhibits no urgency about repairing Lizzy’s broken water heater. One of our heroine’s main obsessions is finding a place to get a hot shower.
But another incident further interferes with her work. A pigeon has been attacked by a cat, and Lizzy is enlisted by Jo in tending to the injured bird, even taking it to a vet. It’s not the money, which the more successful Jo is willing to bear, that’s a bother; it’s the time the pigeon takes from Lizzy’s work, especially since she becomes attached to the pigeon and protective of it.
Then there’s Lizzy’s family. Her mother Jean (Maryann Plunkett), a brusque, businesslike woman, is Lizzy’s superior at the office of a small art magazine, and her gregarious father Bill, a potter separated from his wife, has allowed a wandering couple to decamp in his house; Lizzy thinks they’re freeloaders and is annoyed by the fact that he has happily welcomed them to stay indefinitely.
More worrisome still is Lizzy’s older brother Sean (John Magaro), a troubled man who lives a reclusive life in an unkempt house. Jean offhandedly calls Sean a genius, but Lizzy seriously doubts that when she finds him digging a huge hole in his backyard and describing it as a work of art. As her show opens, Sean disappears, though both Jean and Bill seem less concerned than Lizzy, even as she tries to interest the small crowd that gathers in the tiny gallery in her work. Amidst the modest hubbub, with Bill trying to connect with a couple of much younger women, Sean appears and begins wolfing down the cheese Lizzy’s put out for the guests, explaining that for him it’s dinner. Meanwhile a couple of kids begin playing with the pigeon Jo’s brought with her and unwrap the bandages, letting it fly free. It’s Sean who intervenes to catch and cradle it, and then release it into the street, in a gesture of liberation.
Though this ending will probably be embraced by viewers as somehow cathartic, it’s actually symptomatic of the most problematic part of the film. The subplot regarding the pigeon is inevitably rather cloying, just as a similar one about an injured bird restored to health was in the recent “Empire of Light.” And it’s apparently meant to reflect to some degree Lizzy’s hard-won expression of creativity, which is really the essence of the film. It would arguably have been better had Reichardt avoided even the hint of mawkishness the whole endangered bird motif, with its allusions to both Lizzy’s tenacity and her fragility, represents and hewn more closely to the observation Sean, whether genius or not, makes, “You have to listen to what isn’t being said”–a practice Reichardt adhered to more exactingly in her previous films than she does in this one.
Yet “Showing Up” is extraordinarily successful in expressing, in its low-key way, the ambience of the community in which Lizzy is soldiering on—a group of artists and artisans determined to express themselves through their work, however little notice the outer world might give it. (Indeed, many viewers might well see them as a smugly self-centered lot, happily inhabiting a protective bubble.) Once again Williams, who has collaborated with Reichardt before, brings her most subtle instincts to the lead character, never breaking the mood even when Lizzy, in a rare moment of exasperation, confronts Jo about the water heater (only to retreat after being told off, though he does rip up a few of Jo’s flowers before retiring from the field). The other members of the cast are similarly committed, with Magaro (who also worked with the director before, in “First Cow”) and Hirsch, obviously relishing another high in his octogenarian career renaissance, standing out, though Chau is effortlessly convincing in her matter-of-fact indifference to others’ opinions.
Technically the film evinces Reinhardt’s belief in simplicity, with Anthony Gasparro’s production design and April Napier’s costumes free of frills, as is Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography and the lapidary editing by Reichardt herself. Ethan Rose’s understated score features solo work from flautist Benjamin.
Kelly Reichardt’s neorealist style is an acquired taste, and many will find it too reticent, even sleepy. But if you can tune into her wavelength, at its best the result will come across as quietly insightful and moving.