Showing Up: Art as a Mirror

Showing Up is another pristine addition to auteur director Kelly Reichardt’s filmography. Set in Reichardt’s typical setting of rural Oregon, Lizzy (Michelle Williams) prepares to do a potentially career-changing art show. Her journey is a simple one, but nevertheless as poignant as many dramas. Reichardt’s skilled hand leads on a mostly whimsical but still emotionally affecting journey where Lizzy’s relationship with her family, friends and colleagues changes as she commits herself to her art and finds how her life’s experiences inform the art that she wants to make.

Reichardt’s patient and minimalist style is distinct. While its not the most cinematically engaging way of telling stories, it allows space for her characters and stories to be fully lived in. This gives the film a particular strength as Reichardt not only has a talented cast but her star Michelle Williams has been a frequent collaborator, giving the film a true sense of realism.

Showing Up has a personal and autobiographical nature about it that helps connect the viewer to Lizzy’s struggles but the film wasn’t meant to turn out that way. Initially, the film was set to be a biopic on Canadian artist Emily Carr but shifted when they visited Vancouver. There, they discovered that Carr was not an obscure artist but one of the most celebrated Canadian artists as part of the Group of Seven. The project then shifted to become a portrait of a truly unknown artist who worked at the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland (which would close in 2019). Reichardt’s avoidance of a widely celebrated artist was crucial as her style and narrative approach had always been interested in analyzing the mundane and the little psychological battles that we face everyday.

Co-writer Johnathan Raymond has recognized that the artistic process works differently for everyone because most don’t run on the trajectory of success or failure. Instead, artists make their work for different reasons and the dramatic rise and fall of an artist is just that: a dramatization. The film now gets its wide release close to a year after being announced as part of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival Competition lineup where Reichardt received the Carrossse d’Or award for her life’s work.

Overall, the film is technically flawless. One of the beautiful benefits of Reichardt’s consistently minimal style is that she has mastered every part of her filmmaking process. I’ve already briefly mentioned how well Reichardt has worked with Michelle Williams in the past but she is really great in this role. The hair and makeup team also do a great job showing this woman who’s kind of in a stuck place of life, struggling to achieve more. Her hair is frazzled but not so much so that she can’t go out without drawing attention to herself. Her eyes are tired but not so much so that people think she has amnesia or medical attention. Most of the first half sees her slowly going through life with a struggling sense of hope for her new art show where Williams is able to really bring the character to life and make her distinct from any character I’ve seen her play before. (Certainly, it’s very different than Mitzy in The Fabelmans.)

The rest of the cast is also amazing, Hong Chau rocked 2022 with roles in this film, The Menu and The Whale. She was my personal pick of the Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actress and, while her work isn’t nearly as dramatic, she proves how well she can play different characters. What’s amazing about Reichardt’s minimal style in directing and writing is that she can create these distinct characters for her amazing cast to play (Andre Benjamin, John Magaro, Judd Hirsch and Maryann Punkett) while having them play characters who feel like truly lived in.

They’re people that you’d meet on the street.

Most great character actors that I’ve witnessed are really good at playing bigger than life characters in stories that find the most exciting events or worlds to explore and others will play different versions of themselves. Showing Up takes its familiar players but makes them into distinctly real people who seem worlds away from the actual actors. One of them (Andre Benjamin) actually uses their musical prowess to contribute to the film’s score as he is credited as a flute player whose melody closes out the film. It works really well with one of the most serene and calming film scores in recent memory with Ethan Rose doing an excellent job. It feels like the kind of music that Lizzy would be listening to at multiple points in the movie.

Christopher Blauvelt as the DP has worked with Kelly so much that their artistic chemistry just shines off the screen. You get the feeling that the two of them stumbled upon this cast of characters and knew exactly how to photograph the way they move through the world. The opening introduction to Jo (Hong Chau) says as much as we watch her whimsically roll a tire down the sidewalk so she can make a tire swing in her backyard. Moments like that communicate everything that we need to know about visually and it’s one the defining reasons that Reichardt is an acclaimed film auteur.

Showing Up is available in theatres on Friday, April 14th, 2023.

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