Showing Up: Kelly Richardt’s Quiet, Poignant Meditation on Art and Life (or Life and Art)

Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichardt’s Understated Drama of Art and Life in Portland

The actress, in her third film with Reichardt (their best was Wendy and Lucy), gives a quietly compellingly, understated, performance as a sculptor trying to let the real world in, while making it as an artist.

Showing Up Movie Cannes
Courtesy of Allyson Riggs

Lizzy Carr (Michelle Williams), the central figure of Kelly Reichardt’s female-centered Showing Up, is a sculptor finishing up a series of ceramic figures to be presented in a gallery show.

She is the kind of protagonist–anti-heroine if there ever was one–that is seldom depicted in mainstream cinema: young middle-aged, not particularly attractive (they deglamorized the look of the naturally beautiful Williams.

She is seen on the small clay statues–all women, about a foot tall, some mounted on rods, with rough, patchy surface look awkward and unpolished, and yet boasts an original aesthetic style.

Lizzy has talent and devotion, and with her meticulous calm, she pours herself into creating and honing these objects. What she doesn’t have–yet–is a professional career as an artist, based on peer or critical recognition or commercial demand.

A serious artist, she’s about to get her own show as she’s finishing up her studies at the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland.

The school is full of people doing fresh and quirky imaginative work, and that makes them feel separate from the others–it’s a community of creative souls. Yet the larger art world they aspire to is so competitive and demanding that the chances of succeeding in it is rather small.

There’s no shame in being a creative person who doesn’t earn a living at it. That’s been the story of American middle-class life ever since the 1960s — the tapping of impassioned artistic energies by ordinary people (artists, poets, actors), even if they’re not brilliant or ambitious or just lucky enough to make it.

We in the audience are invited to look and evaluate what Lizzy does (her sculptures are actually the work of the Portland-based artist Cynthia Lahti), perhaps even contemplate her probability at achieving success.

Art is more or less the only thing Lizzy cares about. So what’s the meaning of her life if she doesn’t succeed at becoming an artist, and for her all talent her sculptures turn out to be a hobby?

The film never articulates that question — at least, not in the way I just did. On the contrary, it’s a movie of feints, digressions, sidelong humor, and the randomness of life intruding on the purpose of life. I’d argue, however, that the question hovers in the background, since Lizzy seems to cling to art like a survival raft. You could simply call her a student, and you’d be right, but what she really is is a bohemian.

She rents a red-cedar-shingled apartment, with a garage studio on the bottom floor, from Jo (Hong Chau), a landlord who’s also her art colleague (she’s a student at OCAC too), but the hot water hasn’t been working for days, and Jo hasn’t bothered to fix the heater; she’s too busy putting together her own show.

Lizzy hasn’t taken shower in days, and it’s humiliating. It’s a sign of her desperate straits. Lizzy, who appears to be in her late 30s, is living hand-to-mouth, working in the office of the college sculpture magazine, which is run by her mother, Jean (Maryann Plunkett), a free-spirited former hippie in her.

Lizzy’s dad, Bill (Judd Hirsch), is a sculptor too — a potter who found enough success to rub shoulders with the art world.

Her parents, long divorced, are all about themselves. And so, in her passive sheepish mopey way, is Lizzy.

“Showing Up” spans the course of one week. On the surface, not much happens beyond Lizzy’s day-to-day travails.

Michelle Williams plays Lizzy in a wavy mop of brown hair, with a slight frown–she seems repressed and a bit frumpy.

But Williams, who had starred in Reichardt’s finest film, the irresponsible-young-woman-and-her-dog drama “Wendy and Lucy” (2007), is a great, subtle actor. For a long time, she doesn’t “reveal” much, but that’s quite intentional, as she cues us to read everything Lizzy is holding back.

The artist has developed where the person hasn’t. Lizzy’s silent obsessiveness turns Showing Up into a story of caring about something to the point that it takes over your life.

André Benjamin brings sly charisma as the school associate who operates the kiln, and he encourages all the artists. But when one of Lizzy’s sculptures gets overcooked in the oven, his attitude chafes at her; she thinks the piece is ruined.

Caring that much is Lizzie’s dysfunction, and maybe her glory. But as the movie goes on, she lets a little more life in.

Reichardt teaches at Bard College in order to make ends meet–and get health insurance. She has shot most of her movies in Portland (Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes also live there).

She surveys this community of creatives with a blend of affection and comedy that never slips over into satire. In its minimalist way, “Showing Up” is a movie made by someone in masterly control of her medium.

Bit by bit, the dramas of the everyday take place and affect Lizzy: Jo’s passive-aggressive refusal to fix the water heater; the fate of Lizzy’s brother, Sean (John Magaro), who strikes us at first as a hostile incel and then, by the end, as possibly schizophrenic.

; and the drama of a wounded pigeon, which Lizzy callously tosses out of her house after her orange cat has chomped its wing, then Jo rescues it, then Lizzy takes over its care, which is really about her learning to nurture — the bird and herself. The movie’s title means: She shows up for others, but will she show up for herself? That, in fact, is one of the defining perils of bohemianism: what you sacrifice for love, or art, without the looking out for number one that’s required in the real world.

At last, Lizzy’s show happens. And the question is: Will Marlene (Heather Lawless), the college’s current artist-in-residence, who has taken liking to Lizzy and voiced approval of her work, make it to the opening? That question is that of recognition and success, the possible connection to a New York gallery that she could offer.

Showing Up may be too quiet and undramatic to find large audience, but in its lovely way it locates that place where art and life intersect, as each becomes the other.

Production: An A24 release of an A24 production. Producers: Neill Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani.

Crew: Director: Kelly Reichardt. Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt, Jon Raymond. Camera: Christopher Blauvelt. Editor: Kelly Reichardt. Music: Ethan Rose.

With: Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, Judd Hirsch, Maryann Plunkett, John Magaro, Heather Lawless, André Benjamin, James Le Gros, Lauren Lakis.

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