The saying goes that “art is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone will have their own interpretation.” Perhaps no filmmaker’s work is more emblematic of this saying than Kelly Reichardt’s, whose resolutely reserved and au natural dramas are seen as masterpieces by some, as dull slogs where nothing at all happens by others. Her latest, Showing Up, is sure to be fuel for the same divisive judgments, although its somewhat ironic look at the Oregon art scene, which resembles a commune of starving artists, offers a bit more fodder for laughs than the typical Reichardt film.
Then again, I’m not entirely sure Reichardt was trying to be funny with Showing Up. It probably depends on your view of struggling artists and the drama that is their lives. Reichardt muse Michelle Williams stars as Lizzie, and let’s just say that Lizzie is about as far from Williams’ fantastically photogenic role in The Fabelmans as possible. With dirty brown hair and frumpy clothing, Lizzie, a ceramicist on the verge of a “major” show, is exhausted and a nervous wreck. It doesn’t help that her neighbor/friend/colleague/landlady Jo (Hong Chau, always marvelous) won’t fix the hot water because she has her own big show to worry about. Not only that, Lizzie’s cat has mauled a pigeon and now she’s co-parenting the bird with Jo. Add on to that her father (Judd Hirsch) seems to be shacking up with a pair of freeloaders, and her favorite piece just got roasted in the kiln.
It’s also up in the air whether Lizzie is any good at what she does. Reichardt doesn’t seem to be saying anything one way or another, but sometimes you get the impression from Jo’s lazy compliments (“Wow”, “Awesome”) that maybe she isn’t? Everyone there is shown to be incredibly serious about their work but who is any of it for, exactly? Maybe nobody there is any good, they’re all lacking in self-awareness, and that’s sorta the point?
Lizzie, despite looking exhausted and extremely depressed, keeps showing up. She does the work, even if she’ll never create a masterpiece. She cares for her brother (John Magaro) who appears to have a mental illness that has put some strain on the family. Even though it infringes on her already limited work time, Lizzie is repeatedly there to care for the ailing bird, and to lend a helping hand to the people around her. Even to Jo, who is self-centered and more than a little dismissive of Lizzie at times.
Another filmmaker would’ve turned this into a broad comedy about a neurotic artist but that’s not Reichardt’s strength. The laughs we do get are minor, keeping with the film’s steady downbeat tone. It’s Williams who keeps you intrigued. She never looks less glamorous than when doing a Reichardt film, but also these are the roles where she’s the most human. Lizzie feels like a real person, with understandable problems and understandable anxieties. Reichardt resists the urge to give her a love interest or anyone to truly escape into, which makes the tension of her situation more acute. Showing Up will look like a blank canvas to a lot of people, but to those who struggle to compromise the creative process with life’s daily ordeals, the brushstrokes will be familiar ones.
Showing Up is in select theaters now, DC on April 14th.