Clay figurines set in expressive poses capture the wistful spirit of a struggling artist in Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up, which had its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival this week. Michelle Williams gives an emotionally rich performance in her fourth collaboration with the director, in a comedy-drama set at the (now defunct) Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC). Students, faculty, and alumni mark their days in a creative milieu, with Williams as Lizzy, and Hong Chau (known for Downsizing) as her peer and landlord, Jo, the two local graduates caught in an imbalanced friendship of neediness and withholding.
Michelle Williams, who made her name on Dawson’s Creek and had her breakthrough film performance in Brokeback Mountain (2005), is in her wheelhouse playing a troubled character in a small-scale film. She began working with Reichardt in Wendy and Lucy (2008), the heartbreaking story of a vagrant searching for her lost dog. Reichardt, an artist-in-residence at Bard College since 2006, is known for her realistic, unhurried features, of which there are now eight. Her other frequent partners include Portland author Jon Raymond, who co-wrote Showing Up with her, and cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, whose unique framing gives the art-world setting an inventive flavor.
To add to a feeling of vérité, Reichardt tapped three actual mid-career artists to advise on this female-focused film. Along with related watercolor studies, Lizzy’s rough-hewn sculptures were created especially for Showing Up by Portland-based ceramicist Cynthia Lahti, who studied at OCAC. To prepare for the role during the pandemic, Williams worked with Lahti over Zoom, learning how to manipulate a block of clay sent to her. New York–based Israeli artist, Michelle Segre, provided Jo’s colored yarn pieces that evoke elaborate dream catchers in a boundless universe, via her longtime dealer Derek Eller. And standing in for pieces by a minor character (Marlene, a teacher who admires Lizzy’s work) are unpolished assemblages by the redoubtable Jessica Jackson Hutchins,another Portland-based artist.
In the midst of preparing for solo gallery shows, Lizzy and Jo’s clashing personalities put them at odds. Confident and successful in her craft, Jo prioritizes her own needs, and puts Lizzy off about the hot water that needs fixing. When Jo rescues an injured pigeon, it’s suddenly Lizzy who is minding it. The cooing bird is by her side in her garage turned studio, as Lizzy molds gray clay into crude female figures, pensive or in motion, to be glazed in unnatural colors. Waving, laughing, or crawling, the figures hint at secret inner worlds.
Meanwhile, Jo is preparing for two shows with full-body gusto—straddling a roll of foam as she plies it into shape for one of her large-scale, fiber pieces that resemble soft mobiles. Shocked that there’s no catalogue ready for her work—a presumptuous expectation—she’s a contrast to introverted Lizzy who leads with vulnerability, sheepishly asking for time off from her day job of menial office work, to concentrate on the finishing touches for the install of her show. Her mother (Maryann Plunkett) is her manager in an administrative role at the school, and even she is a little starry eyed over her daughter’s competitor, Jo.
As the movie progresses, Reichardt shows us around campus, building the tension for the exhibitions’ openings, panning into and out of traditional and experimental art classes. Students weave on huge looms, draw nude models, roll paint, project images on a geodesic dome, and dance outside on the grass in a class called, amusingly, “Thinking and Movement.”
Lizzy invites her brother, Sean (John Magaro), to the gallery opening with her trademark passiveness: “If you’re not busy, maybe you’ll come.” When her mother discusses Sean’s genius, resentment blooms on Lizzy’s face, given that her brother is, in fact, unstable and her mother is sidelining her in the conversation.
With the show’s opening imminent, Lizzy becomes increasingly distressed, and the frustrations keep adding up. In her usual garb of modest, thrift-store clothing, she walks into Jo’s show, mid-install, and eyes her landlord’s spectacular work, including a majestic red wall hanging, beaming like a fiery sun. Her intimidation of her rival is palpable through Williams’ subtle body language. When art assistant Eric (André Benjamin, aka André 3000 of OutKast fame) retrieves some of her sculptures from the kiln, to Lizzy’s horror, one emerges burnt. Easygoing Eric is unfazed and says the damage looks cool, but he is unconvincing.
Angry and hollow-eyed from pulling an all-nighter, Lizzy now boils into a rage and calls Jo to complain about a guest taking her parking spot, and uses the moment to scream about not having hot water. Her focus continues to turn outward, distracting her from the critical work at hand. She finds time to interfere in the lives of her brother and her retired father (Judd Hirsch) who is housing deadbeat visitors. When the day of her opening arrives, she becomes overly concerned with the amount of cheese available on the refreshments table. Family squabbles and side comments add to her mounting anxiety, even while her figurines receive compliments. In a startling twist, the revived pigeon makes an appearance in the gallery, and the focus is no longer on Lizzy and her work, as the swooping bird causes panic in the room.
Then with a shared interest in the pigeon’s aftermath, Lizzy and Jo find a peaceful coexistence, despite their differences.
After debuting at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Showing Up had its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 5 with additional screenings October 6 and October 16 before a larger release by distributor A24.