Two years after her affecting First Cow hit theaters, Kelly Reichardt doesn’t stray from the Pacific Northwest setting where four of her other films take place. This time, she trades 17th century Oregon County for the present-day Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland, where her exasperated lead, Lizzie (Michelle Williams), works as a day job. When she’s not working, Lizzie is crafting uncanny, rigid portraits of women in disjointed poses, whether in watercolor on paper or in tangible clay, the latter of which being the medium she’s chosen to showcase in an upcoming show. But before Lizzie can arrive at her big day, she has to navigate a whirlwind of chaos: Her dysfunctional family; the contentious relationship with her landlord, neighbor and fellow artist, Jo (Hong Chau); and a poor, injured pigeon that her cat, Ricky, tormented one night.
In her fourth collaboration with Reichardt, Williams is better than ever. Possibly overdone in beleaguered, regular-woman makeup this time around, Williams still best showcases just how lived-in of an actress she can be in Reichardt’s work. Every sigh she utters feels pulled down by weights, her slouch hurts to look at; her exhaustion bounces off the screen and infects the audience like an illness. And in spite of how done-up she is in order not to look like an actress, it is primarily in the physicality of her performance and the candor of her dialogue that she is believable as Lizzie, struggling artist. There is never a moment where Michelle Williams slips through the performance. But she’s also surprisingly droll, with Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond penning a number of lines made comic in Williams’ perfect deadpan. Lizzie strikes as the new apex of Williams and Reichardt’s consistently fruitful relationship, each installment since 2008’s Wendy and Lucy another rung reached in which the two have further hewn the synchronicity between artist and muse.
Like Lizzie’s patchy figures, Reichardt’s camera fixates on obscured body parts and jerky zooms as it follows Lizzie working towards her opening night amidst a near-comical string of setbacks. First, her hot water is still off. It’s a weeks-long issue habitually, if unsurprisingly, ignored by Jo, with Hong Chau being a totally effortless fit for Reichardt’s naturalist world. Jo is well-meaning, but flitty, unreliable and a little phony. Chiefly, she is engaged with the impending opening of her own art show—a bigger, more expansive show than Lizzie’s. Which is why Lizzie ultimately takes over primary care of the injured pigeon that Jo found the morning after Lizzie stuffed it out her apartment window, never admitting accessory to this crime. But now Lizzie has this ailing pigeon in her custody, on top of her landlord’s flakiness, on top of her worrying about her father (Judd Hirsch) taking in a freeloading couple (Amanda Plummer and Matt Malloy) she suspects is taking advantage of him. And there’s also her brother, Sean (John Magaro), troubled, mentally unwell, but a “genius” according to her doting mother (Maryann Plunkett), and who is digging holes in his backyard. And Lizzie still has her deadlines to meet.
However, the throughline humming through all the maelstrom of Lizzie’s life is this creative insecurity. It comes across in how Lizzie carries herself, how she speaks about her art and how she speaks to others. When her first set of female figures come out of the kiln at school, she remarks to herself how good they look. In that moment, she feels pride in her work, and accepts the praise from her co-worker, Eric (André Benjamin) as he hands the ceramic ladies from the kiln over to her. Still, she is cagey when Marlene (Heather Lawless), a teacher at the school, comes over to offer her own interest in Lizzie’s little women. Marlene shows Lizzie genuine curiosity, but Marlene, like Jo, is competition. Marlene is confident, forthcoming and accomplished in her work, just as Jo is able to use the extra money she makes from Lizzie’s rent to rent out a studio, allowing her to work on more sizable art and afford a larger gallery to show it off. Jo really “figured it out,” a character says to Lizzie later in the film.
Lizzie takes to ambling through the halls at her school and exploring the art that the students and teachers are making. Perhaps she’s considering to herself in what ways their art is better than hers. When looking at her tiny clay figures after witnessing the vastness of Jo’s in-progress exhibition, there is the sense that Lizzie feels overshadowed by her perceptions of her peer’s success and opportunities. You might look at what you have while looking at what others are doing and ask yourself “But what am I doing?” It’s the light, minimalist touch of Reichardt’s atmosphere and her nurturing of interpersonal subtleties that engenders an overwhelming emotional intensity as Lizzie finally sets up her work on display in the gallery. One single, small row of figures in the middle of a large, empty space. When they arrive, her father remarks to his freeloaders that the show may not look like much, but the space is impressive.
Before this, we see Lizzie’s best and largest figurine emerge from the kiln, one side accidentally burnt. Eric notes the external wound kindly, feeling that such unintentional marks give pieces a unique distinction. Lizzie can’t help but feel like her art has been ruined. Still, she puts it on display in her gallery, where Marlene, while perusing the art, sees the burned figure and says to Lizzie, “At this stage, you just gotta own it.” It is the simplest, sagest advice.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond
Starring: Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, Judd Hirsch, André Benjamin, Heather Lawless, Amanda Plummer
Release Date: October 5, 2022 (New York Film Festival)
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.