Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Kelly Reichardt excels like no other filmmaker at conveying the subtle ravages of time on earth. She brilliantly tackled the epic theme of America’s western expansion in the revisionist westerns Meek’s Cutoff and First Cow and eco-terrorism in Night Moves. But it is the day-to-day yield and subtext of history and politics that most concern her: a young housewife facing down ennui in River of Grass; a friendship deteriorating with age in Old Joy; a young woman seeking a better life unprepared in Wendy and Lucy; women extracting meaning from desolation in the post-feminist Certain Women. For Reichardt, even subdued lives are fully lived and merit sympathetic attention. They include, she insists in Showing Up, the quietly precarious existences of artists. Wise, nuanced, and penetrating, the film is also stealthily hilarious.
Set in Portland, Oregon, Showing Up is a tableau of suffocating proximity, with precisely measured doses of cringe humor. Lizzy (peerless Reichardt-whisperer Michelle Williams, here disarmingly down-to-earth) is a taciturn sculptor preparing for a potentially pivotal show while working a day job as an administrative assistant at the art school her bossy mother runs. Lizzy’s extroverted landlord and fellow artist Jo (Hong Chau, just right) is a fount of passive-aggressive diversion and humble-bragging disingenuousness. She chirpily installs a tire swing in her backyard when she should be fixing Lizzy’s hot water heater and whines about the challenge of readying two shows simultaneously. Ingratiating kiln operator Eric (André Benjamin, well cast) over-bakes Lizzy’s signature piece because he’s too busy being charming, blithely blaming the oven while consoling Lizzy that he prefers a little imperfection.
Lizzy is hardly pristine. When her cat mauls a pigeon that has flown into her bathroom, she tosses the injured bird out the window, whereupon Jo finds it and foists it on Lizzy, who sanctimoniously nurses it back to health without revealing her complicity in its plight. Meanwhile, Lizzy’s gregarious father (Judd Hirsh, of course), a ceramicist, irritates her by letting a pair of smug freeloaders lounge indefinitely in his living room and then, at her opening, puffing up his own art career. The most ominous stressor is her unmoored brother Sean (a spooky John Magaro), who, half-convinced of his own genius with the aid of maternal affirmation, appears equally capable of homicide and suicide. Perpetually enraged, he digs holes in his backyard that he fancies are mouths that speak poetry.
Secreted in what can seem like trifling problems are serious insights about art. Sean is clearly unhinged, but his aesthetic impulse to dig holes is not inherently less creditable than Lizzy’s penchant for eerie small-scale ceramic figurines, which seem to depict artists in the community with flattened, sometimes missing, limbs. Confining her artmaking to the studio and gallery, without damaging property, might make it more socially comfortable, but if that were the applicable criterion, earthworks and more would be banished. More broadly, Reichardt examines the squirmy dualism in an artist’s behavior whereby fruitful narcissism tends to accompany the vexatious kind. Jo’s slippery tire-swing stratagem for deflecting Lizzy’s tenant complaint also reflects a less objectionable integration of art and life. Although Lizzy’s interiority exasperates other people, Reichardt slowly shows that, channeled with purpose through her hands, it invests her sculpture with otherworldly allure.
The iconic Obama-era TV comedy Portlandia presented a community at once enervated and chaotic, but happier and more agreeable than reality essentially because it was less competitive and celebrated idiosyncrasy rather than conformity. Its co-creators and stars – Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein – didn’t dwell on the fragility of alternative chill, but they never let the audience forget that it hovered over the project. While Reichardt’s Portland crew would be at home in Portlandia, she pulls back the curtain of quirky smarm that Armisen and Brownstein left closed to reveal an ecosystem, tenuous but crucially intact, that rings more deeply true. After the nerve-wracking opening of Lizzy’s show, which Jo inadvertently almost sabotages, the two walk home together animatedly discussing art, their differences set aside but not forgotten.