Showing Up

Kelly Reichardt makes a very particular kind of film. Her work, which includes First Cow and Wendy & Lucy, isn’t heavy on plot. It encourages observation, not just of up-front details but of minutia, as well. You need to scrutinize the look on a character’s face, or the way they put emphasis on a particular word when speaking. You have to pay attention to the subtext of conversations, the vibe of settings, and the overall mood of each individual scene. In other words, you’ve gotta be patient, and if you are, you’ll get somewhere in the end.

Reichardt’s latest, Showing Up, is my favorite of hers so far. For a long time, I found it pleasant and amusing. When the last scene arrived, though, everything clicked into place in a meaningful way. This is a good movie about the intersection of artistic and personal freedom.

Lizzy (Michelle Williams) is a sculptor preparing for an upcoming show that holds a lot of meaning. Plenty of distractions present themselves in the days leading up to it. Landlord and fellow artist Jo (Hong Chau) procrastinates about fixing her hot water heater. Brother Sean (John Magaro) is in a full-fledged mental health crisis. One of her sculptures gets burned on the side in the kiln, ruining her vision. Then there’s a wounded bird that Lizzy and Jo attempt to nurse back to health.

That’s the movie right there. We watch Lizzy tinker with her sculptures in between dealing with those other issues. It’s all extremely low-key. There are no grand dramatic moments. Parts of Showing Up, however, are dryly funny due to the way Lizzy channels those frustrations into show prep. A fairly lengthy scene depicts her trying to get the arm on one of her statues just right. Astute viewers will recognize that the precision with which she does this reflects the lack of control she has in other areas. Her whole life right now is trying to fix stuff that isn’t quite where it needs to be.

Interest is maintained because Williams is an eminently watchable actress. Lizzy doesn’t need to explain her feelings or verbalize her irritation in an elaborate way. We can sense it from her weary looks, from the attitude she greets each problem with. Moments with the equally watchable Chau are among the best parts of the film. The actresses allow us to feel the dual friendship/tension between Lizzy and Jo. When the former wants hot water in her apartment and the latter is concerned with hanging a tire swing, it speaks to how we’re all focused primarily on ourselves.

The very last scene of Showing Up pulls the disparate elements together. I don’t want to give away specifics. The thing to know is that the burned sculpture and the wounded bird are metaphors for Lizzy’s personal and professional lives. What happens with them mirrors what happens with her internally. As the movie’s final seconds play out, the theme satisfyingly snaps into clarity: Life isn’t perfect. The sooner you accept that, the more content you’ll be.

out of four

Showing Up is rated R for brief graphic nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.