Review: “Showing Up”

Lizzy (Michelle Williams) is an artist on the verge of a breakthrough—or a breakdown. Either path seems completely viable throughout Showing Up, writer and director Kelly Reichardt’s low-key yet incisive character study of a working modern artist. By day, Lizzy does administrative work for the Portland art school of which her mother Jean (Maryann Plunkett) is the artistic director. In her off-time, she’s a sculptor who crafts delicate figures of women in motion, squeezing in time to fire her works in the kiln between students, struggling to find the time or even the inspiration to work at home as myriad forces seem to be conspiring against her.

Two of those forces: an injured pigeon, and Jo (Hong Chau), another artist who Lizzy is contrasted to throughout the film. Lizzy is introverted and perhaps not very confident, something Williams (in her fourth collaboration with Reichardt and another brilliant performance in a career filled with memorable roles) conveys through her shuffling gait, hunched posture, and restrained demeanor. She’s virtually incapable of assertiveness, whether it’s asking her mother for a day off to work on her sculptures for an upcoming solo exhibition, practically begging her separated parents to check on her troubled brother Sean (John Magaro), or confronting Jo, from whom she rents her place, to fix her hot water. Jo, on the other hand, is extroverted. She has two big gallery openings coming up. Everyone at the foundation knows her and greets her warmly. When it comes to that aforementioned injured pigeon, when Lizzy finds it on her bathroom floor, a victim of an attack by her cat, she gingerly scoops it up in a dustpan and tosses it out the window, murmuring “go die somewhere else.” The next morning, Jo approaches Lizzy with a box. In it: the pigeon she found, determined to bandage up its broken wing and take care of it. The pair’s different personalities are even evident in their art styles: Lizzy creates well-defined forms out of brittle clay, while Jo’s sculptures are abstract, crafted from recycled, pliable materials. But for all of Jo’s surface-level generosity, there’s an air of phoniness to the personality Jo is projecting. As soon as she fixes up the pigeon, she pawns it off on Lizzy while she goes out for the day, forcing Lizzy to give up time she reserved for herself to care for it. And she constantly finds excuses to blow off fixing Lizzy’s hot water, to a degree that sort of makes you want to strangle her (a testament to the effectiveness of Chau’s performance).

Michelle Williams and Hong Chau in “Showing Up”

So much of Reichardt’s previous work, from Wendy and Lucy to her most recent film, First Cow, has centered around characters existing on the fringes of society, and Showing Up is no different, even if at first blush Lizzy appears to have a lot going for her, from her apparently privileged background to the promise of a career turning point with her upcoming gallery show. But the constant presence of Jo, and the flippant reactions of her mother to her work, are evidence enough that she hasn’t exactly “made it.” Exterior forces—the need to work a profitable job, for one thing—are always holding her back from being able to fully allow her creativity to soar. In this way, Reichardt and her frequent writing partner Jon Raymond parallel her journey with that of the pigeon’s, a creature that the majority of people dismiss as vermin (a colleague at work even laughs at her when he finds out she’s caring for the bird). The idea that as the pigeon gains the strength to eventually take flight as Lizzy metaphorically does the same sounds trite on paper, but is realized so lovingly through the film’s script and serene imagery. Reichardt wisely composes every scene to deliver just the right amount of information we need to know about Lizzy’s family, from her brother—who seemingly disappears after spending an inordinate amount of time digging holes in his yard, and whose well-being adds an unexpected layer of tension to the film’s third act—to her father Bill (Judd Hirsch), who we can glean from the shelves of pottery in his home is also an artist. At her gallery show, Lizzy notably pays the most attention to his observations of her work. And similarly to her, there’s a lack of assertiveness to him; a couple who Bill claims are his friends frequently stop over to stay at his house for extended periods of time, but Lizzy worries, believing they are taking advantage of his hospitality (and, perhaps, loneliness). Interspersed throughout are serene scenes of creativity occurring at the art foundation where Lizzy works, from figure drawing to abstract dances to weaving. There aren’t any passionate fits of creative fury captured here, but Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s camera observes the artists at work with a meditative eye. Even on a deadline, Lizzy works steadily but gently as she removes the limbs from a sculpture and reattaches them in a different position. As with much of Reichardt’s filmography, Showing Up operates at a low pulse, but its messaging—in this case, an advocacy for the importance of the arts and its ability to nurture the mind and the soul in equal measure—is clear. And Reichardt effectively uses that art institution setting to convey the various types of minds and personalities that collide when many creative people are thrown together in one space, from Lizzy and Jo to Eric (André Benjamin, whose flute score beautifully complements the film’s unhurried pacing), the school’s easy-going kiln operator, to Jean, whose excitement over visiting guest artists and the work of her students doesn’t carry over to her own children.

André Benjamin and Hong Chau in “Showing Up”

The pressures and joys of making art and the necessary ability to grow and change are perhaps best communicated, however, through a scene in which one of the clay sculptures Lizzy made emerges from the kiln (just the waiting to see how the pieces are going to turn out is rife with suspense) with one side burnt to a crisp. Eric is unfazed, brightly telling Lizzy that he thinks it looks pretty cool, but Lizzy is visibly upset that her original vision has been compromised. But she displays the piece in her show all the same. We’ve watched Lizzy over the course of the film have to change course when she doesn’t want to to care for the pigeon, to check on her father and brother, to find a place where she can take a shower because Jo won’t fix her water, fighting to find that balance between time to create and time for necessities. That the burnt sculpture, which possesses its own coarse beauty despite not coming out as Lizzy intended, is a microcosm of what Lizzy has been going through doesn’t really become clear until the end of the movie, and that’s part of the brilliance of what Reichardt pulls off here. Showing Up is another masterwork from a filmmaker who has arguably never missed.

Showing Up is now playing in select theaters. Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated R.

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