“First Cow” may not have been anywhere near as soul-devouringly sad as “Wendy and Lucy,” but that bittersweet frontier comedy about two friends who get milked to death while trying to make an honest buck was still bleak enough to leave me very scared for the heroine of Kelly Reichardt’s latest film about desperate people and the animals with which they run afoul. Or, a fowl, as the case may be in the director’s feathery “Showing Up,” a slight knowing smile of a movie starring Michelle Williams as a stressed-out Portland ceramist with a pageboy haircut who reluctantly finds herself nursing an injured pigeon during the most important week of her not-quite career.
The good news is that nobody gets buried with their best friend or has to leave them behind; this isn’t the kind of movie in which people die so much as one where everyone wears overalls and André Benjamin plays the patient kiln master at an Oregon arts college. The bad news is that a deadline might be even more distressing for certain types — namely, an insecure sculptor whose landlord (Hong Chau) is so busy rocketing to local fame with her large-scale installation work that she doesn’t seem to care about fixing the hot water.
And while Lizzy (Michelle Williams) doesn’t love feeling like she’s on the losing side of a semi-imagined creative rivalry, what really grinds her gears is the vague suspicion that Jo (Chau) isn’t just a better artist, but also a better person. When her cat mauls a pigeon within an inch of its life, Lizzy’s first inclination is to throw the mangled creature onto the street with the explicit instruction to “go die somewhere else.” When Jo finds the helpless thing on the street approximately eight seconds later, her reaction is to scoop it into a shoebox and start taping up its wing as Lizzy pretends like she’s never seen it before.
Jo’s rescue appears to be a spontaneous act of kindness, so then why does it seem to land on Lizzy as a performative show of spite? For one of Reichardt’s characters — some worse off than others, but all of them stranded in a country whose promise seems impossible to share — it stands to reason that artistic frustrations and personal resentments would circle each other like wagons on a long trip to nowhere. Then again, art doesn’t necessarily have to be loved in order to be worth making, and something loved doesn’t necessarily have to be made in order to feel like art.
Light as a bird fluttering along to the flute pieces that Benjamin plays in support of Ethan Rose’s score, “Showing Up” can be insubstantial in a way that makes the 80-minute “Wendy and Lucy” feel like a David Lean epic in comparison, and unhurried in a way that makes “First Cow” feel like fast food. There are no bad parts, and yet even the best ones are barely there. But, with almost imperceptible force, Reichardt’s film gradually discovers the strength required to nudge Lizzy out of the circular rut where it finds her at the start. As one character puts it: “Things usually get done. Just not on time.”
Reichardt’s animals have a funny way of forcing people into a final confrontation with their solitude, and while that’s not not the case in “Showing Up,” Lizzy is seldom alone. When she’s not chasing after Jo for help with her hot water, she can often be found doing admin work for her mom (Maryann Plunkett), also an artist, at the arts college she used to attend, or paying a visit to her artist brother, Sean (“First Cow” star John Magaro), whose ongoing struggles with mental illness don’t make it any easier for Lizzy to stomach the family line that he’s the “genius” of the group.
In fact, Lizzy is typically only alone in a literal sense when she’s working away in the garage studio where she makes her spindly little sculptures (created by Portland-based artist Cynthia Lahti), which are just as jagged and bent out of shape as the woman molding them. But once Lizzy volunteers to look after the pigeon while Jo is off becoming a star, she’s got company even then. It coos a lot.
It goes without saying that Lizzy and her wounded new friend will have an effect on each other, though anyone familiar with Reichardt’s work — now more relaxed than ever, her protagonist moving forward with the subtlety of a continental drift — will rightly anticipate that effect to be somewhat incidental in nature. Indeed, “Showing Up” is characteristically attuned to the almost imperceptible impact that people (and animals) have on each other without even realizing it; the way they shape, friends, family, and perfect strangers just by, well, showing up.
Williams’ performance is so unforced and implosive that it can seem like showing up is all she really had to do, but it’s extremely hard to make acting look this easy — to play an entire symphony of notes in the span of a single octave. On screen in almost every frame of the film, Williams inhabits Lizzy as if simply letting the character move through life as she did before we met her and probably always will, pushing her through each scene like a lint roller that’s gradually accumulating small resentments. It becomes hard to tell which bits are new, and which were already there.
Jo may not be aware of (or responsible for) the outsized effect she has on Lizzy’s sense of self, just as Lizzy — the self-appointed glue of her family, despite always being stuck to herself — may not pick up on how she pushes her relatives apart through her efforts to hold them together. And yet, for better or worse, the mutual influence these people have on each other is as real as a thumbprint in raw clay, and as inextricable from who they are on their own as art is from life or life from art.
It’s a phenomenon that “Showing Up” alchemizes into low-key resentments and unfussy encounters, some more entertaining than others. On the one hand, Chau’s prickliness helps enliven a movie that often seems on the verge of losing interest in itself or growing too heavy for its “nothing to see here” tone. On the other, Magaro’s pitiable character adds sudden weight to a film that isn’t always ready to carry it, even though his purpose eventually reveals itself with such novelistic panache in the climactic scene that I wanted to find Reichardt after the credits rolled and apologize for doubting her vision.
As with Lizzy’s sculptures, which go into the kiln all mottled and damp but come out glistening with new layers of color, “Showing Up” is transformed by its finishing touches. The pieces that emerge are warm and alive and bring people together to appreciate them while eating small plates of cheese; they serve their purpose, whatever their questionable impact on Lizzy’s career. I’m reminded of the scene in which Lizzy brings the pigeon to a vet, who re-tapes the bird’s wing and gives it right back to the artist. “That’s all?” Lizzy asks. The vet shrugs, as if unsure what else they were supposed to do. “Yeah. It’s a pigeon.”
“Showing Up” premiered in Competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in the United States.
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