Despite the steady repetition of themes that define Kelly Reichardt’s filmography (alienation, class, gender, the American West), her output has remained surprisingly unpredictable moving from one film to the next. Showing Up is no exception, a work that at once feels familiar and distinctly hers, and yet somehow plays like a fresh change of pace, its small-scale stakes and lighthearted tone serving as a release valve for the pressure of having to follow First Cow, one of her finest films to date. The closest analog to Showing Up in her filmography would likely be Old Joy, with its easygoing melancholy and sweet Yo La Tengo score. But even that feels like a false comparison given how, despite its quietude, Old Joy’s focus is splintering friendships and loss, whereas Showing Up is almost its exact opposite, instead emphasizing the resilience of art and community as a bulwark. Furthermore, it’s the funniest film she’s made to date, albeit funny in the way Kristen Stewart’s 4-hour commute to teach a night class in Certain Women is funny, meaning even its humor is often cutting, bittersweet, and tinged with poignancy.
Speaking of the Reichardt back catalog, it’s been over a decade since Michelle Williams’ unforgettable, and quietly explosive, appearance in Wendy & Lucy. Williams has delivered a set of wonderful turns in subsequent films with Reichardt, but mostly in ensembles, and never did she so wholly own those collaborations in the way she shined playing down-on-her-luck Wendy. This trend finally shifts in Showing Up, as Williams returns to play Lizzy, an unassuming sculptor doing her best to prepare for a gallery show as a string of small but aggravating obstacles land in her way. These roadblocks include a self-centered friend/landlord who won’t get the hot water running, a brother who is spiraling while aloof parents shrug it off, and a wounded pigeon who’s been entrusted to her care days before the show. Williams brilliantly entwines herself in the role of Lizzy; she’s swallowed up in cozy sweaters, slouching from room to room in crocs with a dejected shuffle, and yet, beneath the rolled-out-of-bed get-up, hands stained with paint and bearing the dark eye bags of an exasperated artist, is a downright magnetic warmth and sweetness at her core. This type of invisible, character-forward performance is, despite its effortless appearance, just as rich, textured, and beautiful as any in Williams’ career.
All the while, Reichardt takes full advantage of the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts setting, taking breaks from the narrative for sojourns through studios where students are diligently weaving, painting, working on ceramics, and engaging in all manner of mixed media arts. There’s an undercurrent here of sardonic probing of the slacker-like disconnect from the outside world that’s so specific to Portland; like the sequence where Lizzy’s landlord/friend Jo (Hong Chau) huffs that she’s too busy to fix the boiler (broken for two weeks now) while giddily building herself a tire swing in the backyard. Even so, Reichardt’s humor is never mean-spirited, and despite these jabs never disparages the art itself. Jo’s artwork is later presented with equal reverence and intrigue afforded to everybody else, and in one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Lizzy walks through Jo’s exhibition feeling both appreciative, daunted by its scope and reception, and insecure about her place in the art world. A lesser script/director might reduce Jo to an easy antagonist by posing her art as vapid or ridiculous when contrasted with the protagonist’s sincere output, but Reichardt’s film is just as concerned with the craft as it is with its main character, so even if Jo tends to be careless with others and oblivious to her privilege, her commitment to her art and practice remains a serious matter worthy of consideration and respect.
That said, Lizzy’s art does take center stage in Showing Up. The film opens on gorgeously messy sketches of her figurine models, with splotches of paint giving the drawings a sense of movement and vibrancy. We watch the process through which these two-dimensional blueprints are carefully formed out of clay, studiously painted, and tempered with fire. Outkast’s Andre Benjamin, who’s been ramping up his film roles lately, plays a friend who works the kiln, handling Lizzy’s final works with sacrosanct care. His gentle handling makes them feel like holy relics, and Reichardt has lavished so much time on Lizzy’s hands lovingly molding and painting that it’s not too hard to believe that they might be. When Reichardt echoes the shot of those hands, now petting a pigeon’s head with the same delicacy and care, a bridge between Lizzy’s art and life forms. Speaking of the pigeon, a bird mauled by Lizzy’s cat, found by Jo and pawned off into Lizzy’s care as a favor, becomes an easy but touching metaphor. With her parents divorced and their attention split, her troubled brother Sean (John Magaro), like the wounded bird, seems in desperate need of care and would otherwise fall through the cracks if not for her. She finds him in his empty apartment in a paranoid fit, isolated and withdrawn, eating a sad bowl of spaghetti.
When she alerts her mother that something may be wrong, the response Lizzy gets plays like a joke: “He’s a genius is part of the problem.” But what’s gorgeous here is how Reichardt forces us to confront this line later on: when Sean is in a dangerous manic state digging holes in his backyard, he speaks in the vernacular of artistry, describing his efforts as a piece representing the “mouths of the earth.” Lizzy, desperate to help her brother, has no time to process the undercurrents, but Reichardt stresses respect to the art first and foremost, emphasizing that the line separating Sean’s artistic expression and Lizzy’s is thin and imprecise. Earlier in the film, Lizzy attempted to rid herself of the burden of caring for the bird, “Go somewhere else, die somewhere else,” she yells in an uncharacteristic fit, but ultimately her compassion prevails, and the metaphor carries over for her brother to whom she returns. In the chaotic build-up to her big moment, Sean’s narrative of isolated frustration is inserted and juxtaposed with the nurturing studios of the school. Reichardt depicts his art as an articulation of breakdown, an art of pain, of loneliness, and anger; it’s an art that calls out to the world with a yelping cry demanding to be heard, and just like Jo’s art, or Lizzy’s art, or any art for that matter, what counts the most is who shows up to hear it.
Published as part of NYFF 2022 — Dispatch 3.