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'Showing Up' is a movie about artmaking without the delusions of fame or fortune

Michelle Williams stars as Lizzy in "Showing Up." (Courtesy A24)
Michelle Williams stars as Lizzy in "Showing Up." (Courtesy A24)

Lizzy sculpts clay figurines of women in motion. They're about the size of footballs and don't take up much space in a gallery. The wonder is in the details and the colors, which you have to really lean in close to appreciate properly. Lizzy's friends and family refer to these statuettes as "her girls," with a hint of condescension that's probably not intentional. Or not too intentional, anyway. She has a show coming up next week at a little gallery space close to downtown. Lizzy's got a lot of work to do.

Kelly Reichardt's "Showing Up" is an unassuming movie that contains multitudes. It's the writer-director's eighth feature and her fourth starring Michelle Williams. Like Lizzy, Reichardt has made a career out of crafting exquisitely nuanced miniatures of characters frozen in motion. These quiet films expand in your mind for weeks after the closing credits roll. This beautifully observed, gently satirical portrait of the oft-parodied Portland, Oregon, creative scene is a movie about art — not as a passionate calling but as day-to-day drudgery. Creative work is still, nonetheless, work. And work takes time, which Lizzy never seems to have enough of these days.

She has a day job in administration at a local arts college where kids are enrolled in classes with names like "Thinking Through Movement." It takes us most of an especially awkward time-off request to realize she's an office assistant to her mother (Maryann Plunkett). Lizzy's father (Judd Hirsch) was a ceramic artist of some considerable renown, now happily retired with two aging, hippie freeloaders (Matt Malloy and Amanda Plummer) eating him out of house and home. Her brother (John Magaro) has always been troubled, and lately, it's tough to tell if the holes he's digging in his yard are a new "earthwork" project or another nervous breakdown.

Hong Chau and Michelle Williams play in "Showing Up." (Courtesy A24)
Hong Chau and Michelle Williams play in "Showing Up." (Courtesy A24)

As fearlessly played by Williams, Lizzy is probably the least ingratiating protagonist we'll meet in a movie this year. Brusque and inelegant, she clomps around, muttering to herself, fuming over a one-sided rivalry with her colleague and landlord, Jo (Hong Chau). The hot water heater in their duplex is broken again, and Jo can't seem to get around to having it fixed, even though she has plenty of time to throw parties and install a tire swing in the yard. A popular installation artist whose work is as expansive as Lizzy's is compact, Jo has two shows coming up— and a catalog. "She's got it figured out," Lizzy seethes.

"Showing Up" is Reichardt's most overtly comedic film, but it's funny in such a reserved, bone-dry fashion that half the audience will probably spend the movie wondering what the rest of us are laughing at. This is an expertly conducted symphony of passive-aggression, a portrait of a milieu where everyone fancies themselves too tolerant and enlightened to admit how exasperated they are with each other. Reichardt and her regular co-writer Jon Raymond pin down this peculiar, excruciating strain of forced politeness where even furious phone calls end with an admonishment to "Have a great day." It's a riot watching these characters try to contain their aggravation, and the joke you might not get until the ride home is that as artists, they've supposedly devoted their lives to self-expression.

André 3000 and Michelle Williams in "Showing Up." (Courtesy A24)
André 3000 and Michelle Williams in "Showing Up." (Courtesy A24)

Williams is one of the best we have at this sort of thing, allowing Lizzy's perma-scowl to register microscopic flurries of feeling. The actress is a brilliant minimalist who does more with less, which is why she's such an ideal muse for Reichardt. It's also why she was so horribly miscast last year as Steven Spielberg's screeching, attention-hog mom in "The Fabelmans." Williams is reunited here with her fellow "Fabelmans" Oscar-nominee Judd Hirsch, doing some brilliantly refined work as a small-pond egomaniac who hilariously (and heartbreakingly) can't figure out how to compliment his daughter except in the most backhanded fashion. These two convey their fraught family history without having to tell us anything about it.

A crummy version of this movie would make Lizzy's show a high-stakes, possible ticket to the big time. But "Showing Up" isn't a movie about making it in the art world. It's about making art, period. Because you have to and because it's part of who you are, even if there's no money in it, and it eats up all of your free time. Nobody here has any delusions of fame or fortune, but maybe if you work hard enough, you can get your stuff shown at that place that's not quite downtown, but it's close.

Reichardt piles all the interpersonal conflicts and potential crises into a close-quarters climax that keeps threatening to combust into screwball-style chaos. Instead, it offers an entirely unexpected moment of grace. Then the show's over. Life goes on, and it's back to work in the morning. And that hot water heater still isn't fixed.

"Showing Up" is now playing in theaters.


Sean Burns Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.



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