Writer-director Kelly Reichardt reunites with her muse Michelle Williams (their fourth collaboration) for a slice-of-life drama that takes us through a week at the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland.  Williams plays a sculptor named Lizzy who prepares for her upcoming show while contending with her overstretched mother Jean (Maryann Plunkett), who runs the art school, and her occupied artist-landlord Jo (Hong Chau), who doesn’t have time to fix the hot water heater.  It’s been four years since Reichardt’s last film “First Cow” and while there are no bovines present in “Showing Up” there is a cute pigeon attempting to steal the spotlight.

“Breezy” is the best way to describe Reichardt’s latest film. It’s laidback and feels like an extended segment of 60 Minutes based on the Portland art scene. In most of the writer-director’s films, one or more of the characters are beleaguered, often in perilous situations.  In “Showing Up” the biggest conundrums include, “Will Lizzy be able to shower before her upcoming show?” and “Will the wounded pigeon ever fly?”  In other words, there are no elements of danger to add tension to the story, but there are subtle spurts of comedy to put a smile on your face.

Williams is unrecognizable as the dowdy and frumpy Lizzy who works tirelessly in her cluttered garage studio to finish her female sculptures.  Once done she transports the fragile ceramic pieces to the kiln operated by Eric (André Benjamin).  With muted colors and missing limbs, some mishaps others on purpose, the imperfections add character to the gorgeous art created for the film by Portland artist Cynthia Lahti.  Williams received sculpting lessons from the native artist who wanted Lizzy to look authentic while molding the clay figures.   

Fresh from playing Brendan Fraser’s caretaker in “The Whale,” Oscar-nominated actress Hong Chau once again steals the spotlight (even from a wounded bird) as Lizzy’s landlord-artist Jo who we first see rolling a tire down a sidewalk.  Within seconds she’s hoisting a rope over a tree limb to make a swing.  This bothers Lizzy who can’t get Jo to fix the hot water which means no showers.  “My show opens on Friday, I’ll be free to deal with it after that” comments Jo, who is reminded by Lizzy, “I have a show too, you know” followed by “You’re not the only one with a deadline.” The short squabble ends when Jo comments, “I know but I have two shows which is insane” prompting Lizzy to walk away frustrated.

The film is not so much about making art but about life’s obstacles or roadblocks that keep interfering with the creative process.  The landlord situation is a minor hurdle when compared to living in the shadow of her artist-brother Sean (John Magara) who’s eccentric and off his meds.  Everywhere Lizzy turns she’s reminded about Sean’s talent, “He’s a genius” comments her mother Jean, then adds “He was always incredibly creative.”  Last time Lizzy checked on her brother he was digging a large hole in his backyard for what he calls, “a very major piece.”

Lizzy’s parents are divorced and it’s easy to see why.  One can imagine a self-centered power-struggle relationship between Jean and Lizzy’s father Bill (another memorable performance by Judd Hirsch) leaving little or no time to focus on the kids.  Bill, a talented potter, is also a bit eccentric.  His cluttered home is even more crowded thanks to the two strangers living there. Lizzy expresses her concern to Bill about the couple staying with him, but she forgets he came from the hippie era when strangers living together was the norm, especially in the art world.

Oh, and that wounded bird.  Lizzy cries “fowl” when she witnesses her cat’s catch-of-the-day, a wounded pigeon.  She sweeps it up into a dustpan and then dumps it out a window.  Jo finds it and figures one of the neighbor’s pets must have injured the bird, so she asks Lizzy to help her nurse it back to health.  Karma?  Eventually, Lizzy takes the wounded pigeon… under her wing (I couldn’t resist).

Fans of observation cinema should flock to the theatre (I can’t stop) as this exceptional cast delivers an amusing glimpse at creative-minded people “winging it” through life.  The whimsical score by Ethan Rose (which would be at home in an episode of the 70s television series “The Six Million Dollar Man”) sounds futuristic and dated simultaneously.  I also enjoyed Christopher Blauvelt’s crisp cinematography.  “Showing Up” marks new territory for Reichardt as she tests the comedy waters by getting her toes wet.  Maybe next time she’ll go for a swim.

(3 stars)

Now showing at the Angelika Film Center (Dallas) and the Angelika Film Center (Plano)

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.