In 2017, the Paris Review published a piece by Claire Dederer called “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” With her new film Showing Up, which just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, director Kelly Reichardt asks: What if you’re not a monster, and show up for the people in your life while still trying to be creative? She uses her characteristic long takes and natural rhythms to depict an art school in Oregon, following Lizzie (Michelle Williams) as she prepares to display her clay figurines in a show. Her struggle — rendered with impish good nature — is one of ring fencing time amidst a slew of competing distractions. Reichardt identifies these distractions with an authentic awareness of how trivial daily life can be, and derives entertainment from making Lizzie jump through a slew of semi-absurd hoops.
One of Lizzie’s ongoing struggles is to get her hot water fixed. This involves persuading her landlady, Jo (Hong Chau), that this is a priority. Jo is an artist too (arguably a more gifted one) who is preoccupied with preparing for her own shows, and adept at breezily dismissing Lizzie. The frenemy dynamic between Williams and Chau is a continual gift. Even casual conversations are lightly coated with anything from professional envy to community-mindedness to landlord/tenant passive aggression. Both actresses turn in layered performances, directed by Reichardt with a warmth that means things never get so adversarial that a common cause like tending to a wounded pigeon can’t bring them back together.
As an actress, Williams is best-known for roles in which she suffers sensitively. She’s previously done just that three times for Reichardt, as a penniless drifter in Wendy and Lucy (2008), a 19th-century settler in Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and a sad, frustrated builder in Certain Women (2016). It’s a treat to see her give a grumpily comic performance, using her talent at handling long pauses to convey different degrees of judgmental horror before selecting a measured response. After two weeks of no hot water, she explodes and commits an act of hilarious pettiness: tearing the heads off Jo’s flowers in the manner of Inspector Closeau losing his cool.
Showing Up is a rare film about the art world that presents a scene of artists who won’t be getting rich off their work. It’s certainly not a sufficient reason to distance oneself from people. Lizzie exists within a needy community full of family, colleagues, the recuperating pigeon, and a scene-stealing cat named Ricky. Although these cause her exasperation, as they pull her away from her sculpting, Reichardt champions the value in staying connected to life beyond one’s creative microcosm. The rest of the cast exists to aggravate Lizzie with their blithe charms, and each performance is a delight. They range from amiable colleague André 3000 (also scoring the film with his flute) to the hippie freeloaders staying with her father. Showing Up retains the humane perspective that has established Reichardt as a gentle giant in her field, while also showing an extremely funny side that she hasn’t often flexed in her work before now.
Showing Up played as part of the Cannes Film Festival and will release in theaters later this year.