Kelly Reichardt has no affection for glamor. The Florida-born, New York-based, Oregon-obsessed filmmaker, who has shot and set six of her eight feature films here, has a reputation for telling slow, textured, mythology-piercing stories, strikingly free of sound or fury. In Meek’s Cutoff, she throws viewers inside the numbing drudgery of manifest destiny beside ill-fated trekkers on the Oregon Trail; in Wendy and Lucy, she polishes off Portland’s late-aughts PR spin to reveal the Rose City’s hardscrabble edges.
Showing Up, Reichardt’s latest Portland-set feature (and her latest collaboration with author/screenwriter Jon Raymond), turns that patient sensibility and aversion to spectacle toward the art world. The film first premiered in competition at Cannes in May and had its domestic premiere last week at the New York Film Festival. It's Reichardt's funniest film by a mile, and one of the least-romantic views of art making I've ever seen onscreen.
Michelle Williams plays Lizzy, a frumpy, frustrated sculptor who lives in Southeast Portland with her cat. On the cusp of opening a new show, she faces a mountain of obstacles: her landlord/colleague/frenemy (Hong Chau) won't fix the hot water in her apartment; she's worried her dad's friends (Amanda Plummer among them) are taking advantage of him in his old age; her cat maims a pigeon and she's saddled with nursing it back to health. These mini-conflicts form interludes, mostly comic, that separate Lizzy from her work, and us from the quiet rapture of watching her make it.
Far from the portrait of a tortured genius, though, Showing Up is more like a portrait of the artist as grunt worker. Lizzy has real, unmistakable talent (her art is the offscreen work of Portlander Cynthia Lahti), but there are no sweeping strings as she molds her clay or tears shed when she completes a brushstroke. She's part of a community of artists—the film is set at the now-defunct Oregon College of Art and Craft, which Reichardt and her crew effectively turned into a functioning school again during filming—who we mostly see mid-process, folding and cutting and using their hands. Art, here, is less a spiritual concern than a physical one. You can read the title at least three ways, but the clearest acknowledges the simple value of returning to the studio day after day to put your hands on another mound of clay.
A refreshing lack of sentiment, while welcome, does not a movie make, and it's just one of Showing Up's considerable virtues. Williams is in a thrillingly unfamiliar key playing someone grating, difficult, and unintentionally hilarious, and Chau's equal-but-opposite effervescence brings a bracing dynamic to their deceptively intricate scenes together. The photography, by Christopher Blauvelt, has gorgeous grit and texture to it, visually linking this lighter film to Reichardt's other, drabber explorations of labor in the Pacific Northwest. And the tone, while at times surprisingly acerbic (one of Chau's shows, for example, is called Astral Hamster), always tips toward sympathy: we can tell Reichardt loves these characters, so we come to love them too. Her and Raymond's witty script feels like a level up in their 15-year collaboration, landing with the easy elegance of a short story canonized long ago.
In a post-screening Q&A at Lincoln Center last week, an audience member asked Reichardt about Lizzy's role as a reluctant caretaker—for her family, her pigeon, and herself. Reichardt leapt into an answer before stopping herself. "Something always needs doing," she said, not going any further. "I don't really want to tell you how to feel about it." Such is the pleasure of two hours in the company of a Kelly Reichardt movie. Practical, profound, and reliant on a bit of active excavation on your part—not unlike Lizzy's left-of-center sculptures.