The gang’s back together for another rip-roaring pinnacle of cinematic greatness. By that I mean director, co-writer, and editor Kelly Reichardt is back with star Michelle Williams for a quiet, delicately full film that will receive immense critical acclaim and little else.

It’s a well-established fact that the pair make great movies together, but outside of ardent film circles people probably lost track of Williams years ago and are unlikely to know of Reichardt at all. They continue plugging away, though, making films at such a small scale that they must be made for the love of the game, and this time they turn their attention to people who are doing much the same.

In Showing Up Williams plays Lizzie, a sculptor of some skill but little recognition, as she prepares for an upcoming show. By day she works a low-level job at a small art college. Embarrassingly, it is revealed she works under her mother. Even more deflating, she rents an apartment from a fellow artist whose career is moving at a much faster pace, and she’s seemingly surrounded by people who are much more put together and slightly disinterested in her work. 

In spite of this she plugs away at her sculptures, and Reichardt takes time to linger on her creative process. This won’t be surprising to those acclimated to Reichardt’s sensibilities, which go all in on the small and the mundane. So of course Lizzie is best understood through the painstaking adjustments she makes to the clay women she creates, especially in a bravura scene that holds on a sculpture whose aura shifts as Lizzie reworks the arms.

Lizzie and the community she’s sequestered in barely shifts more than this sculpture, and it’s fascinating to watch. Reciting plot points would miss what Reichardt has captured. This is a mood piece, one of gentle anxiety and frustration peppered with the comedy of fighting through it. As familiar scenarios pass one is meant to chuckle instead of guffaw, wince instead of cringe.

Perhaps the only surprise of Showing Up is how it sidesteps the self indulgence of artists poking fun at artists. One imagines Reichardt knowing a lot of insular communities like the one Lizzie navigates, where bohemian aesthetics belie the same pettiness you find anywhere humans congregate. Friends get enthused and then flake. Families take each other for granted. Colleagues ask you to pour them coffee. Too often these are treated as a novelty, as if it’s shocking that artistes would stoop to such levels, and its presence becomes the punchline of the film.

Reichardt is too smart for that, her humor is too exact for such simplicity. She knows how to build from a cat whining for food to a cat screaming behind a door, their little paw frantically scrabbling against the injustice of captivity. Everything she layers into Lizzie’s life has a comedic or poignant payoff, even if it’s only a small part of a simple life. Zooming in on them, finding the bits that add up, that’s what Reichardt does best, and it’s what prevents Showing Up from feeling familiar.

Helping mine all these facets is a stellar cast, especially Hong Chau, who rips into a character that initially seems like one-dimensional comedic relief before she expands into the loveable antagonist Lizzie needs. André Benjamin of OutKast fame strolls around as an unflappable embodiment of the community’s indifferent support, and Judd Hirsch has a moment that relies almost entirely on the shine in his eyes to flip our perception of his character. 

But it’s Williams, of course, who is most attune to Reichardt’s vision. Her Lizzie is a mess who doesn’t fall apart, a prickly personality who still finds friends, and an artist who believes in her work’s value despite it being relegated to a side hustle. None of the contradictions are overplayed. All are allowed to exist in the discordant harmony that is humanity. Four films in, it’s unsurprising Williams is comfortable in another of Reichardt’s trademark world of frail dreams, but it’s still a marvelously difficult performance to behold.

In many ways, Showing Up is what it says on the box. It’s a film of modest promises that never oversteps. It shows up, gives you a few laughs, makes you hope the sculptures turn out well, and releases you into the night. It’ doesn’t claim more than it needs for a gentle sendup of the artistic life.

Release: available now in theaters
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writers: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, André Benjamin, Maryann Plunkett, John Magaro, Judd Hirsch

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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