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In “Showing Up,” Michelle Williams stars as Lizzy, a Portland-based sculptor for whom little seems to go right in the week leading up to a big solo show. Kelly Reichardt’s latest film takes us to modern-day Portland for a playful comedy about the realities of visual artists.
As Lizzy, Williams is frazzled and grumpy, stern and flustered. She meets compliments with a downcast gaze, doubtful, perhaps, that she’s worthy of them. She lives alone with a very good bad cat, working on figurines of young women, while her colleagues drink and hang out during their off-hours.
As a day job, she works at an arts college she once attended as an assistant to her mother (Maryann Plunkett, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), who she must ask for days off to work on her art, while her father (the great Judd Hirsch) entertains guests he barely knows. Her brother Sean (John Magaro, “First Cow”) lives a sheltered life on his own, occasionally the source of family worry and tension, as only Lizzy takes it upon herself to be his (necessary or not) caretaker.
This would maybe prove a tolerable existence for Lizzy were she not inundated with the success and joie de vivre of her neighbor, friend, former classmate and now landlord, Jo, played with deft humor by Hong Chau. For Jo, it all comes easy: making art, making friends, making love. As a landlord, she’s spacey and inattentive — Lizzy’s lack of hot water is a growing source of concern — too busy living her life, working on her textile installations. In every way, Jo proves herself opposite of Lizzy, but the two women are linked to each other, years of affection binding them, even though they get on each other’s nerves.
It’s a relatively plot-heavy picture for Reichardt, whose films are often slower or more meditative, but “Showing Up” is full of her trademark wry humor. Her collection of on-screen artists are simultaneously self-serious and humble, making the most of their small-town art scene. Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney fame served as location scout, giving the film an authentic and lived-in feel, whether out on Lizzy’s leafy street or at the now-defunct Oregon College of Art and Craft.
Long after the success of “Portlandia,” we have a more earnest glimpse into a niche community in Portland, complete with idiosyncrasies and canvas tote bags, bohemians and professors and strivers. The cast is rounded out with other Reichardt staples (including James Le Gros, who played Williams’ husband in “Certain Women”) alongside other character actors, like André Benjamin (also known as André 3000) and Theo Taplitz (“Little Men”), the latter playing a family friend. That’s not even to mention a very prominent pigeon in the ensemble.
Not since “Amadeus” has there been a movie so rooted in the realities of working and making art, and all the torture and pleasure that comes with such a trade. Indeed, the relationship between Lizzy and Jo feels like a Crocs-core “Amadeus,” a story of professional jealousy and artistic camaraderie in a world that feels wholly its own, though both artists make different, substantial contributions to their scene.
Lizzy’s sculptures are figurines by Cynthia Lahti, and Jo’s installations are the work of Michelle Segre, but both Williams and Chau nail the craft necessary to sell their characters to the audience. It’s that craft that keeps them together: Lizzy and Jo legitimately respect the other’s work, regardless of what comes between them as people.
“Showing Up” is perhaps Reichardt’s most grounded and least impressionistic film, but it is still more than thoughtful and enjoyable and beautiful. Under her regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s eye, Portland is a lush metropolis, with cozy, tchotchke-rich apartments and dewy lawns. And Lizzy’s/Lahti’s sculptures are colorful and distinctive: painted girls in a variety of poses, the pleats of their skirts made with a plastic fork, their necks bearing the weight of a thumb to narrow them.
Not unlike Reichardt’s films, Lizzy’s work reflects real individualism. It’s easy to root for her (Lizzy, but Reichardt, too), prickly as she is, because the sculptures mean so much to her. In a cinema landscape full of products and content, “Showing Up” is a refreshing piece of art, lovingly crafted and proudly displayed.
“Showing Up” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.