Showing Up
Michelle Williams and Hong Chau in Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up; courtesy of A24

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Whenever an animal appears in a Kelly Reichardt film, I become uneasy. Lucy, the homeless dog in Wendy and Lucy; the first cow in First Cow; even the oxen in Meek’s Cutoff, her mesmerizing, radical western: It’s not that I expect these animals to be killed off in the final reel. Most of Reichardt’s animals survive her films. It’s rather that her work consistently touches such a raw, tender nerve that my heart goes out to any creature, human or otherwise, captured by her gentle lens. I want to take care of all of them. The animals are simply the most vulnerable.

In the quietly thunderous Showing Up, it’s a pigeon who captures my heart. Lizzy (Michelle Williams, in her fourth Reichardt film), a sculptor, finds her cat toying with the bird in her bathroom in the middle of the night. The pigeon’s alive but injured. In a panic that will later shame her, Lizzy tries to dispose of it, but her landlord (Hong Chau) finds the pigeon and cheerily pledges to nurse it back to health. She even asks Lizzy to watch it while she’s at work. Soon, Lizzy’s bringing the wounded bird with her everywhere, a living reminder of her moral failing and a constant, nagging opportunity for redemption.

Showing Up isn’t really about the pigeon, though Lizzy’s slow acceptance of the bird reveals the generous spirit hiding beneath her prickly surface. She’s unpleasant at first glance, an artist with considerable talent who is stuck in neutral due to her lack of people skills. It’s a stunning transformation for Williams, who adopts the perpetual scowl of an impatient, embittered child, and the stiff, inelegant gait of an alien hiding in human form. Her quirks make more sense when we meet the rest of her fractured family: an emotionally distant mother (Maryann Plunkett), for whom she works at an artist’s collective; a kind but aloof father (Judd Hirsch), and a troubled brother (John Magaro), whose conspiracy-addled mind seems right on the verge of collapse. For reasons never fully explained—Reichardt always allows her characters some privacy—Lizzy has appointed herself the keeper of the family, and is constantly checking up on her father and brother.

There’s a wonderful tension in Reichardt’s films between high drama and low stakes. Besides the infirm pigeon, Lizzy also has a show coming up in a small gallery. It will mostly be attended by her family and friends, although a more prominent artist who seems to admire Lizzy’s work may attend. It could be good for her career, but the odds are we won’t find out. Reichardt trains us out of our expectations of drama through her gentle pacing and square focus on her characters’ inner lives. Small problems accrue to the point that an explosion seems possible, but this isn’t that kind of film, and Reichardt isn’t that type of filmmaker. Instead, she coos gently over her characters, nurturing them and giving them space to spread their wings, if they so desire.

With its Portland, Oregon, setting and artist subjects, it might sound like the work of a utopian—or an extended, slightly less funny episode of Portlandia—but Reichardt probes the dark, messy corners of her safe spaces. She and her cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, capture the conflicts and contradictions of this post-hippie environment, using natural light and slow camera movements to match the sometimes frustratedly laissez-faire attitudes of its characters. Lizzy is dreadfully unhappy, but no one seems to see it. They’re too caught up in their own affairs, their art, or their commitments to themselves. When she begs her mother to help her father shed a pair of hangers-on (Amanda Plummer and Matt Malloy) who are taking advantage of his kindness, the mother simply washes her hands of her ex-husband. “We wish him well” is all she can say. Everyone is nice, but nobody helps.

Like a firm scrubbing of the soul, Showing Up both embodies and critiques the culture of emotional detachment that pervades the community. As we watch Lizzy struggle to emotionally connect with those closest to her, we may find ourselves yearning for catharsis: for her art show to be a major success so that she can escape to New York, or for a knock-down, drag-out argument with her family. But Reichardt refuses us the release, and the tension is kept to a low boil. There’s something frustrating in this approach, as if Reichardt herself is conforming to the passive-aggression of this community, hiding behind a veneer of non-judgment, even though she’s raging inside. 

Or maybe Showing Up is just a slice of life, both structurally and philosophically. We don’t get the confrontation we want. We don’t get resolution. Our art won’t make us millionaires but we might feel once or twice like we created something good. Our friends and family will come to our opening, though they’ll spend more time drinking wine and talking about their own problems than looking at our art. We’ll go on making our sculptures, writing our novels, and publishing our little film reviews, and we’ll try to be nicer to animals. That’s what we’ve got, and maybe it’s enough.

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Showing Up is showing now at select theaters throughout the country.