The Film That Understands What a Creative Life Really Looks Like

The Film That Understands What a Creative Life Really Looks Like

Kelly Reichardt’s newest film, Showing Up, is in some ways a remembrance of art schools past. It’s set in Oregon, like most of her projects, specifically in and around a college where the taciturn yet flinty Lizzy (played by Michelle Williams) works a day job while pursuing a career as a sculptor. Reichardt filmed on the old campus of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, which closed in 2019. By using it as her backdrop, she evokes a world that’s slipping away, one where small-scale professional creativity can still exist.

Lizzy is devoted to her craft but not at the cost of her practical responsibilities; Showing Up is not some tale of an artist torturing themselves in pursuit of the sublime. Reichardt’s grasp of realism is peerless. She’s long excelled at building simple story lines toward profound revelations. Showing Up is a terrific example of how she documents low-stakes vagaries, following Lizzy for a week as she prepares for a small show, deals with apartment problems and family foibles, and tries to stay focused on her chief passion. What initially seems to be a slice-of-life drama eventually reveals itself as a paean to the difficulties, and rewards, of making art.

Unlike Reichardt’s previous two films (the incredible First Cow and Certain Women), Showing Up is not based on any literary source material. The director—along with her co-writer and frequent collaborator, Jon Raymond—instead seem to be drawing from a relationship that many artists have to their vocation. Lizzy is obviously talented, but she’s not immune to everyday problems, such as her apartment’s hot water going out just as she’s trying to focus on making new work.

Showing Up isn’t a direct analogue for Reichardt’s successful career as an indie filmmaker. Still, she has a lot of empathy for Lizzy, the character’s need to make something she’s proud of, and her mildly prickly approach to relationships. Lizzy isn’t exactly mean, but she is blunt, with an air of despair. She seems to have a hard time feeling satisfied. Williams, who’s made three other films with Reichardt, essays Lizzy’s intense weariness without ever rising to histrionics. The performance is as understated and mesmerizing as her work in last year’s The Fabelmans was brassy and broad.

The lack of hot water is Lizzy’s most urgent dilemma; never have I prayed so hard for a fictional character to be able to take a satisfying shower. For much of the movie, she leans on her landlady, Jo (Hong Chau), a fellow artist who is slightly better known in town and is preoccupied with her own upcoming shows. As Lizzy’s exhibition deadline approaches, she’s besieged by other minor contrivances: teaming up with Jo to nurse a wounded bird back to health; navigating the eccentricities of her parents, Jean (Maryann Plunkett) and Bill (Judd Hirsch). A complicated, looming issue is her brother, Sean (John Magaro), a distressed figure who appears fleetingly.

Showing Up uses a light, deft touch for its somber interpersonal dramas, letting the audience fill in the years of context behind every exchange. Lizzy’s dynamic with Jo, whom Chau plays with a hilarious mix of charm and grating self-satisfaction, is less fraught than Lizzy’s family relationships are, but it’s still weighted with tiny resentments. Jo’s work is composed of giant webs of wire and string; they’re sprawling and showy compared with Lizzy’s intricate clay sculptures, and that difference is reflected in the artists’ personalities. The movie doesn’t make a value judgment on who is the better artist. It does, however, underscore that Lizzy has to work harder to stand out.

[Read: The death of the artist—and the birth of the creative entrepreneur]

Throughout her career, Reichardt has likewise opted for subtlety over ostentation. Even her period pieces, First Cow and the Oregon Trail drama Meek’s Cutoff, were marked by her quiet style despite their high budget. So watching Lizzy slowly build a creative identity on her own terms is delightful in a meta way. She might grumble about her circumstances and chafe against her buzzier peers, but she is devoted to creating work that’s true to herself. Making good art is a delicate alchemy, and representing that process on-screen is a twofold challenge. Reichardt, thankfully, is fine-tuned to the textures of each layer.

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