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- Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
When I first learned about Lives of the Artists, Vasari’s classic text on the Renaissance masters, I naturally wondered if it would feature enough about picking up groceries and not going out. Kelly Reichardt’s lovely and elegant Showing Up watches an Oregon sculptor trying to get through the days—as a harried house renter, as a concerned family member, as a university administrator, as a compassionate human—while preserving that most precious resource, time, for her work. Plenty of films purportedly about artists hinge on getting discovered by a New York art dealer and breaking out—and Lizzy (Michelle Williams) is in fact readying a gallery opening in her town, Portland—but the life of this artist is a granular matter of focus as chance and distraction intrude.
Lizzy makes small dynamic figures that we see her scrutinizing in her home studio, their glazes evoking the dappling of watercolour. (These are the actual work of Portland artist Cynthia Lahti.) She has a job in the office of an art school, which Reichardt—who teaches at Bard College, an upstate New York filmfolk epicentre—limns in affectionate glimpses of students working at projects in music-booming studios and luminous patches of greenery. The fact that André Benjamin has a small role as a friendly teacher, Eric, who runs a kiln, sets the generally chilled-out vibe, and yet at the same time, Lizzy appears to work for… her mother, the somewhat fussy Jean (Maryann Plunkett). Add in the fact that Lizzy’s friend, artist Jo (Hong Chau), is her landlord and hasn’t fixed the hot water heater, and you get an idea of the passive-aggressive annoyances that are percolating.
“That doesn’t get me back the day,” Lizzy says at one point, after taking care of a sickly pigeon as a favour to Jo, whose free and easy air contrasts with Lizzy’s somewhat hunched posture. Williams’s performance isn’t the kind that often gets called physical, but it is, clenched with varying degrees of tension, and as expressive in her pauses as the consternation that hovers on her partly bob-concealed face. It’s easy to suspect at any given moment that Jo would rather be poring over her sculptures just a little more. (Or perhaps stroking her cat, in one of several casually captured domestic details.) Williams’s work here is in a lineage with her roles in Wendy and Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff—all in turn part of a justly celebrated actor-director partnership, also joined by writer Jon Raymond and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (and recently costume designer April Napier, who clads Lizzie in a memorable dressed-down beige for the big show).
But the many tracks of living go on simultaneously, amusingly and anxiously, and so Lizzy finds herself wrangling her unpredictable brother, Sean (John Magaro), while prepping the “install” for her show. Sean, who speaks in an adenoidal drone, has been digging holes in his backyard and going missing, and these glimpses of powerlessness over a mentally ill family member’s well-being are a lot for Lizzy to absorb alongside the anxieties of her art exhibition. There’s also Lizzy’s dad (Judd Hirsch), a potter who apparently knew Color Field painter Gene Davis, and now hosts two perpetual houseguests (hanger-on parodies of the bohemian he once was). The references are subtle—and this most definitely isn’t a Portland Weird portrait of eccentric artists, or poison-pen satire à la Art School Confidential or more recently The African Desperate. (Very subtle: one office gripe involves a personal package arriving for “Ned Halter,” a name that sounds a lot like Bard critic-in-residence and Light Industry co-founder Ed Halter.)
The title Showing Up suggests the value of stick-to-itiveness and doing the work, though an alternative title (for this and a couple of other Reichardt films) might be Getting There. While the film zeroes in on the particular experience of a practising artist, there’s also something democratic and empathetic in Reichardt’s understanding of the process of life and art. One thread about the role of the aleatory that runs throughout the film is taken up in a quietly satisfying way. It’s a fondly funny film without the dismissive gestures coded into many portrayals of art-making, and it’s a view from the inside in every sense—not mining Lizzy’s life for the drama of complications in ways that would isolate her, but rather sticking around and watching what happens.