Michelle Williams is a sculptor juggling familial responsibilities, caring for animals and the meticulous life of an artist in the new film from Kelly Reichardt.
Kelly Reichardt has been a filmmaker of interest in Hollywood’s ongoing push for more female voices in cinema with her minimalist but affecting eye for stories about working class individuals across all eras in America’s Pacific Northwest region. Her latest film is Showing Up, which couldn’t carry a more appropriate title because that’s what inquisitive audiences should do upon its release, because the film is a beautiful portrait of contemporary artist life anchored by an understated performance from Michelle Williams and Reichardt’s impeccable direction.
Williams plays Lizzy, a woman who by day works as an office assistant to her mother Jean (Maryann Plunkett) at an art college, but dedicates all her free time (and even takes personal days from her job) assembling and preparing sculptures for display in an art show at a small local gallery. It’s more of a struggle than one would expect, however, as various distractions weigh on Lizzy’s mind and keep her from finishing her work in time for her show’s deadline.
These setbacks range from the mundane, like her cat begging for food and the unwanted task of nursing a pigeon with a broken wing back to health after it inexplicably flew into her apartment, to the personal duties of visiting her father Bill (Judd Hirsch) and mentally disturbed brother Sean (John Magaro), as well as the added anxiety of getting her sculptures to a kiln managed by her fellow artist Eric (André Benjamin), and the frustration over her friend and landlord Jo’s (Hong Chau) preoccupation with her own art show to get Lizzy’s hot water fixed. There’s also a bit of resentment brewing inside Lizzy as Jo’s career as an artist is starting to thrive while she isn’t getting anywhere herself.
What makes the daily lives of Lizzy, her family and fellow artists so fascinating to watch over the course of Showing Up is Kelly Reichardt’s direction. She’s had a predominantly observational eye over the course of her career, and here, she frames her characters in wide, static shot compositions to not only let us admire the novelty of Lizzy’s sculptures and ponder her intent and their meaning like we’re in an art gallery, but also ask viewers to compare her relationships with family members to those of her work, how Reichardt uses cinema, and even the moviegoers’ own connection to art.
Showing Up also suggests the profound idea that a life that revolves around creativity is a work of art in and of itself. A myriad of scenes that show Lizzy assembling her sculptures linger long enough to establish the meticulous patience that goes into her craft, while the suspense comes in the film’s use of silence that further emphasizes the possibility that disaster in the form of distraction can strike any second, whether it’s her cat begging for food, or having to suddenly rush the pigeon she’s in charge of nursing to the vet when it suddenly has trouble breathing.
The film also excels in looking like something hand-made through the grainy film stock on which Showing Up was shot, while its rustic qualities also appear in some of the camera moments, particularly in a rare instance where the handheld camera tilts its way up to the top of a giant coop gallery to show where Jo is hard at work to the point of physical strenuousness on her own art installation. On the flipside, Lizzy’s internal stress takes shape as preoccupation with her upcoming art exhibit, and Michelle Williams displays her anxious self-absorption through a performance that’s equal parts powerful through the nuances of her facial expressions and humorous when she openly talks to herself and her cat in her most introverted moments.
What’s also admirable about Showing Up is its commitment to portraying local-level art scenes with pitch-perfect authenticity. The pieces these characters make aren’t getting hung in the Louvre, they’re going to small, tight spaces to be observed by local connoisseurs, friends, family members and on the right day, curators perusing for potential pieces with which to fill their museums. This level of realism is engaging especially in the writing, such as an instance where Lizzy implores her mother to understand she needs to take a personal day to focus on her sculptures, which is a feeling all starving artists have had to go through at least once in life.
The realism also comes through in the sound design as the natural sound of a given location adds aural layers into a given location, further immersing spectators into the artist’s world. That being said, there are some places where it masks the dialogue, making some lines difficult to hear. It’s also worth noting that Reichardt’s penchant for minimalism and use of pregnant pauses can test the patience of moviegoers looking for a faster-moving story.
Showing Up may be slow, but not without purpose: with her latest film, Reichardt opens up a window to the inner and outer beings of artists, showing them at work and at life, to tell a gripping but lovely character study that celebrates a woman and all artists like her who juggle so much tensity at all times, but have the delicacy and empathy to be personable again once their show’s guests arrive and supply hope for their future in the vibrant world of art. Audiences and artists on all levels will respectively find Lizzy’s experiences engrossing and see themselves in her livelihood, and that’s why curious moviegoers should show up for Showing Up.