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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Showing Up’ review: Making art in all its everyday glory

Michelle Williams, as a sculptor in “Showing Up,” is revelatory and pointedly de-glammed.

By Manohla Dargis

Stubbornly independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt makes small-scale movies rooted in specific worlds, both inner and outer; nearly all take place in Oregon, where she has long lived and worked. She traveled back in time for her last movie, “First Cow,” a moving chronicle of love, land and capitalism set in the Oregon Territory in the 19th century. Reichardt is back on more familiar ground in her latest, “Showing Up,” a wonderful slice of life that is set in present-day Portland and is about something that she knows intimately: making art.

The movies love tortured artists, inflamed geniuses who thunder against the establishment, aesthetic conventions, their historical epochs, God or just the nearest warm body. No one rages or slashes a canvas in “Showing Up,” although a few characters do raise their voices. At one point, the film’s stubbornly independent hero, Lizzy — a sculptor played by a revelatory, notably de-glammed Michelle Williams — leaves an angry message on a colleague’s voicemail, an expletive-laced tirade that she ends with a comical bleat: “Have a great night.”

It’s a gently funny and true moment in a gently funny and true movie that perfectly captures Lizzy’s complicated interiority. By the time she makes that call, you know a great deal about her. You know that she makes sculptures in her home studio and works at an art school, although what she does there remains unclear. What’s more crucial is that over the course of this delicate, detailed movie, you become familiar with the petulantly downward slope of Lizzy’s mouth, the welcoming disorder of her apartment, the tender care that she takes with her art. You also know that she rarely smiles and scarcely ever says please or thank you.

Written by Reichardt and Jon Raymond, “Showing Up” is a portrait of an individual, but the film is universal in the sense that it’s about a woman living in the concrete here and now. Reichardt is interested in abstract ideas and everyday intangibles, but her filmmaking is precisely grounded in the material world, and so is Lizzy. If she has aesthetic principles, for instance, she doesn’t voice them. Reichardt, though, speaks volumes about art and the artistic process in this movie, which focuses on Lizzy as she prepares for a fast-approaching exhibit — a quietly fraught few days filled with painstaking creative labor as well as testy and comic interactions.

When “Showing Up” opens, Lizzy is putting the finishing touches on the textured, small-scaled figurative sculptures that she molds from clay and then paints before having them fired in a kiln at the school. (The kiln operator is played by André Benjamin, making the charming most out of a modest role.) The figures are of women captured in well-defined poses, with some mounted with rods on wood bases. Several of these little women are erect, and others are recumbent; one stands on her head while a few look like they’ve been captured in mid-leap. A figurine with downcast eyes and a tiny, private smile looks a bit like Reichardt.

As Lizzy works on her sculptures, their shape, details and distinct personalities emerge as do she and this wispy story. Things happen in Reichardt’s movies — minor, fleeting and profound things, just like in life. Story can seem both too grand and too impoverished a word to describe the personal, richly inhabited and realistic worlds she creates from faces and bodies, poses and gestures, rituals and habits, and her very specific grasp on time and place. But, of course, there’s always a story in how human beings navigate one another and sometimes try to bridge — and hide out in — that bristling, ineffable space between us.

That space swells and contracts, by turns narrowing and expanding until it seems as vast and impassable as the Grand Canyon. Lizzy doesn’t make it easy to bridge; it’s instructive that she’s more openly affectionate with her cat than with her mother (Maryann Plunkett), who’s her boss at the school, or with her gruff father (a lovely Judd Hirsch). Yet, while Lizzy works on her art in solitude (the cat comes and goes), she’s rarely alone for long, and the movie is filled with people, a vivid, eccentric and amusing collection that includes Jo (an essential Hong Chau), a vivacious artist who’s Lizzy’s landlord and the recipient of her angry phone call.

Lizzy has reason to be irritated at Jo, who’s taking her time with fixing her broken water heater. But Jo is more than carelessly inattentive. A jolt of energy with a pickup truck and long, sweeping hair, Jo is sexy and popular, the very picture of the hip, hot artist and the apparent polar opposite of Lizzy, with her bob and frumpy look. Jo, too, is readying a new exhibit, but her gallery is bigger than Lizzy’s and her show more prestigious: It will have a catalog! The women get under each other’s skin, but like everyone else in Lizzy’s life — her family, her colleagues, the art students, her cat and a pigeon who swoops in and stays awhile — Jo sustains her.

For Lizzy, making art is an act of self-creation, but it is also and always an act of communion, a way of being in the world and with other people. That makes “Showing Up” a somewhat reflexive self-portrait, one that owes much to Reichardt and Williams’ beautifully synced collaboration. This is the fourth movie that they’ve done together (their first was “Wendy and Lucy”), and it’s a joy to witness how perfectly aligned their work has become. Together, Reichardt and Williams — with little dialogue and boundless generosity — lucidly articulate everything that Lizzy will never say and need not say, opening a window on the world and turning this wondrous, determined, gloriously grumpy woman into a sublime work of art.

‘Showing Up’

Rated R for language. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. In theaters.

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