Art doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and those who observe a piece may have no concept of the time and precision required to create it. That can be immensely frustrating to experience and to have a finished product reduced to an unenlightened critical take, but a failure to be properly appreciated isn’t likely to diminish future output. The interactions of different artists can be fascinating to watch, because each brings a specific approach that is particularly unique and entirely impossible for someone else to fully understand. Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up digs into the intricacies of sculpting and how a careful grasp on physical tools doesn’t make it possible to control many other aspects of life.
Lizzy (Michelle Williams) is busy preparing for an upcoming show, meticulously working on her figurines. She faces multiple distractions, including her landlord Jo (Hong Chau) focusing on her own shows rather than fixing her tenant’s hot water that has been broken for days, and her unstable and unpredictable brother Sean (John Magaro). She also endures having to work for her domineering mother Jean (Maryann Plunkett) and not being able to truly connect with her father Bill (Judd Hirsch), who has let two acquaintances take over his home, wishing for a more consistent support system than the one she finds herself solely propping up.
Showing Up marks Reichardt’s eighth film and her fourth with Williams in the lead role. Williams is clearly comfortable working with Reichardt, slipping into a part in which her character is never comfortable. Lizzy dresses plainly and is sheepish around everyone in her life, protesting against Jo’s failure to take action on her hot water but ultimately shying away from true confrontation, a pattern that also plays itself out at work. It’s a remarkably different turn from the one that Williams delivers in another film this year, The Fabelmans, devoid of energy, confidence, and resolve. Lizzy feels real even though audiences would surely rather not identify with her inability to take charge of her life.
The narrative direction of Reichardt’s film, much like her previous works, including Wendy and Lucy and First Cow, is mostly static, not full of major highs or lows. Instead, it plays out as a chronicle of a few days in Lizzy’s generally unremarkable life. The obstacles she faces are not monumental, but they’re indicative of a lifetime of relationships and interactions that have shaped who she is. The people who come into and out of her life never really see her for who she is, and she has become accustomed to not fighting to be seen or heard, aware that her art may be able to speak for itself, and that, if not, there’s little she can do about it.
Opposite Williams, Chau, who also has standout parts in The Whale and The Menu this year, is far more self-assured, living a similarly unspectacular existence but far more attuned to how to make it work for her. Her presence enlivens a film that otherwise feels somewhat mundane and uninviting, left to Williams and Lizzy to carry with their lackluster enthusiasm. Those with a great appreciation for art may find added meaning in the figurines Lizzy spends so much time crafting, gleaning layers of her personality from the way she approaches her work and obsesses over each part of it.
Fans of Reichardt have likely become accustomed to the pacing of her films, which are hardly urgent and often merely portray events as they happen with little cinematic flair. The opening credits roll over artwork without any explanation, a fitting introduction to the way in which people are often judged by their appearances and the way they present themselves to the world, or, alternately, how an artist is able to see a deeper part of a person by spending time looking at them. There’s plenty to process in Showing Up, and how much can be extracted will depend heavily on the perspective of the viewer.
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After screening at the New York Film Festival in the Main Slate, Showing Up will be released by A24 in 2023.