Showing Up – Movie Review

Showing Up

  • Director: Kelly Reichardt
  • Writers: John Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
  • Starring: Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, Andre Benjamin, John Magaro, Judd Hirsch

Grade: B+

Kelly Reichardt has amassed a loyal following of arthouse cinema nerds over the course of her almost 30 year career, and she’s done so without repeating herself in each of her films. Though the subjects of her films are often vastly different, she’s shown a keen sense of understanding her characters, and the specific places they inhabit. With her latest film Showing Up, she utilizes this ability through the micro lens of the Portland art scene.

Reichardt’s last film First Cow – the last great movie to be released before the world shut down in 2020 – was her most accessible film, a period piece about the changing American landscape filtered through two friends. Showing Up shares that film’s quiet approach to its themes but is more intended as a character study, embodied by Reichardt’s most frequent muse, Michelle Williams. Williams plays Lizzy, an administrative assistant at the local art college and a sculptor. Her most pressing issue is her upcoming gallery show, and much of the film concerns her scrambling to complete her pieces while simultaneously spreading the word to her friends and family. Actually, her most pressing issue is, quite simply, taking a shower. The water heater in her apartment has been out and her neighbor/landlord Jo (Hong Chau) is too busy/aloof preparing for her own, bigger, gallery show to fix it.

Showing Up; A24

Showing Up is the funniest of Reichardt’s films that I’ve seen, though there’s an indirect dryness to its humor. Most of this comes from Lizzy’s family, primarily her father Bill (Judd Hirsch), and her worry over his boarding of two strangers. And her strung-out brother Sean (John Magaro), who rails against basic network channels being restricted as a conspiracy, isn’t much help either. Oh, and there’s a pigeon that Lizzy saves from her cat and has to nurse back to health.

Williams embodies Lizzy’s exhaustion with the world, and those she interacts with, with a lived-in presence that goes beyond her line readings or her body language. It’s almost the complete opposite of her similar performance as an artist in The Fabelmans (where she also starred with Hirsch), but no less impressive; she makes virtually every moment look effortless. One shot lingers on Lizzy creating one of her clay sculptures, which are expressive, painterly figures of mostly women, and it shows Williams actually creating the piece. It’s that kind of verisimilitude that Showing Up, and Reichardt by extension, excels in. Whereas most directors would portray the quirkiness of a small art community for cheap laughs, Reichardt simply observes them, showing their quirks simply as what makes them unique. And whereas most directors would give Lizzy and the pigeon a sort of symbiotic relationship, where she sees the pigeon as an extension of herself, in Showing Up, it’s mostly just another thing for Lizzy to worry about.

Showing Up; A24

Lizzy’s chosen material and subject matter is no accident (they’re the work of real-life Portland artist Cynthia Lahti); the figures represent the one thing in her life that she can control. People are imperfect, and she certainly doesn’t try to create perfection in her art. The sculptures are not only a way to express herself but perhaps to feel superior to someone or something for a change. When one of her favorite pieces is misfired in the kiln (operated by Andre Benjamin, who also provides the occasional flute to complement Ethan Rose’s score), she views it as a failure when in reality, it belies a certain fragility that her other pieces don’t have.

In a past life, I was an art student and, for a brief time after college, continued to make and submit art. I even had my own gallery show. Without playing up the dramatics of the story, thus losing the emotional authenticity, Reichardt manages to smartly portray the casually competitive world of small-town artists. All of this is embodied in Williams’ quiet but effective performance (and the same can be said for Chau, who’s much less intense than in any of her 2022 performances). Showing Up may not be the most dramatically propulsive film, and I fear casual audiences may not leave feeling immediately satiated. I may not count myself as one of Reichardt’s diehard acolytes just yet, but I can’t deny that she’s one of our most uniquely genuine filmmakers working today.

Showing Up will be available in films nationwide on April 28.

OSCAR POTENTIAL:

  • If Reichardt couldn’t get a single nomination for First Cow in a “down” year like 2020, she likely won’t break through here either.

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