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Michelle William Shines in This New, Quietly Tender Slice-of-Life Film

4/5 stars.

Michelle Williams doing scuplture in Showing Up.

Though we often find ourselves thinking of ear-shattering action and jaw-dropping blockbuster spectacle when we think of “going to the movies,” there’s something to be said for films that capture the quiet beauty of everyday life—not just the extraordinarily bombastic stories that dominate the box office. Kelly Reichardt has built a career on telling personal, intimate, low-stakes stories that emphasize the beauty of the little things, and her latest film, Showing Up, is no exception.

Crafting a mesmerizingly peaceful yet bizarrely frustrating artistic paradise, Showing Up’s vivid portrait of everyday life for a starving artist is bolstered by a heavy-duty performance from Michelle Williams and features a handful of scene-stealing supporting cast members including Hong Chau, André Benjamin, John Magaro, and Judd Hirsch.

Showing Up follows a few days in the life of Lizzy (Williams), a sculptor preparing for an upcoming showing of her artwork, whose efforts are constantly interrupted by the trivial frustrations of her day-to-day life. Unfulfilled in a desk job at her local art college and growing increasingly frustrated by her building’s lack of hot water, she lives an existence full of simple complications that turn what should be a straightforward artistic endeavor into an exhausting ordeal that leaves Lizzy at wits’ end.

From the opening title sequence, which simply lingers on various paintings of Lizzy’s, Showing Up quickly and effectively builds a vibrant, lived-in world full of free-spirited artists being forced into the mundane confines of everyday life. Though the camera often remains still, the halls of the art college Lizzy works at are constantly buzzing with activity—in between pushing narrative plot points along, Reichardt frequently takes the time to simply watch the artists of the college at work in their natural element.

Such detail-oriented and leisurely filmmaking may border on tedious for a viewer who likes a little more action in their narrative, but in Showing Up, the relative lack of narrative stakes only helps to emphasize the emotionality of Williams’ performance—undoubtedly the key ingredient that helps Showing Up truly soar. This is her fourth film with Reichardt, and it’s clear that they share a mutual creative understanding. The subtle, understated simplicity and beauty of the world around her informs Williams’ performance, while Williams herself serves as the muse and focal point for Reichardt’s painstakingly detailed visual storytelling.

Many of Lizzy’s day-to-day annoyances come at the (inadvertent) hand of Jo (Chau), Lizzy’s friend, neighbor, fellow artist, and landlord. While Lizzy is preparing for a humble, low-key show, Jo has secured an enviable spot at a prestigious local gallery and is so busy preparing for her opening that she neglects maintenance of their building’s plumbing and eventually offloads care of an injured bird onto Lizzy. Jo and Lizzy’s constant back-and-forth over whether or not Jo has fixed the water heater is bizarrely entertaining in its simplicity and relatability, especially considering how much time we get to spend with Jo herself.

That’s what’s so brilliant about Reichardt’s filmmaking (and Chau’s performance)—in another film, Jo would simply be a recurring irritant and a clueless, annoying neighbor, but instead she’s a fully realized character in her own right, whose stress-induced clashes with Lizzy don’t prevent them from being friends at the end of the day.

Meanwhile, Lizzy’s intense fixation on caring for the injured pigeon that Jo saddles her with is mirrored in her complicated family dynamics. Her parents are bitterly divorced, and she’s seemingly the only member of her family that’s consistently concerned about Sean, her unstable brother prone to frequent bouts of paranoia. Lizzy’s family isn’t grandiose in their tragedy, but there’s something about the familiarity of their story that makes it even more painful to witness: parents with a bitter divorce and a sibling struggling with mental health are still immense, exhausting, complicated problems, even if they’re common.

And it’s clear that the combined stress of caring for her bird, managing her crumbling family dynamics, surviving without hot water, and trying to get her sculptures done on time is taking a toll. By the time her show rolls around, Lizzy looks practically dead on her feat. Williams lives in a bone-deep exhaustion for a good chunk of the film that makes me tired just watching her, but the miraculous beauty of Kelly Reichardt’s direction (and a script co-written with frequent collaborator Jon Raymond) is that even after all the stress and weariness, there’s still a genuine joy to be found in the last act of the film. Yes, Lizzy is going through it, but at the end of the day, her hard work and fatigue have resulted in a beautiful show she can be proud of, where she’s surrounded by the people who she loves and who inspire her most.

There’s something about the airy, open, ever-buzzing yet peaceful art world Reichardt has crafted in Showing Up that makes you want to live in it forever. Even as we see Lizzy teeter towards the brink of collapse, both she and the audience are eventually granted peace and simply beauty once the journey’s over. From production design to sound engineering and score, every little detail in Showing Up works in gentle harmony, and the end result is a beautiful little film with a magnetic performance from Michelle Williams and a quietly bewitching sense of self.

(featured image: A24)

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Lauren Coates (she/her)is a freelance film/tv critic and entertainment journalist, who has been working in digital media since 2019. In addition to her writing at The Mary Sue, her other bylines include Nerdist, Paste, The A.V. Club, and The Playlist. In addition to all things sci-fi and horror, she has particular interest in queer and female-led stories. When she's not writing, she's exploring Chicago, binge-watching Star Trek, or planning her next trip to the Disney parks. You can follow her on twitter @laurenjcoates.