Showing Up Review | Mounting Inconveniences Never Looked This Good

by Andrew Parker

Few filmmakers are capable of making a work that feels simultaneously laid back and stressful at the same time, but Showing Up is further proof as to why Kelly Reichardt is one of those rare artists. A look at visual artists trying to strike the same work-life balance so many struggle with these days, Showing Up revolves around people who are specifically within their element, yet wrestling with problems that would throw anyone from any background off their game. It fits nicely into Reichardt’s deep filmography of relaxed and resounding efforts, and possibly her lightest and most widely accessible story yet.

In her fourth collaboration with Reichardt, Michelle Williams stars as Lizzy, a sculptor and arts college administrator who’s less than a week away from her next gallery show. The completion of her latest works is coming down to the wire, thanks to a variety of circumstances beyond her control. Her landlord, neighbour, and colleague Jo (Hong Chau, continuing her string of absolutely outstanding performances) is too busy with her own upcoming shows to fix Lizzy’s long busted hot water heater. Jo asks Lizzy to care for a wounded pigeon she’s trying to save while off doing anything other than fixing the hot water. Lizzy worries about her single father (Judd Hirsch), who she thinks is being taken advantage of by a couple of travelling freeloaders (Amanda Plummer and Matt Malloy). Her mentally unstable brother (John Magaro) is in a bad place. Her mother and boss (Maryanne Plunkett) almost has to be forced to act on anything, leaving Lizzy to pick up most of the slack for the family. All in all, these aren’t the best set of circumstances for an artist when building to a potentially make or break show. 

Once again writing with frequent collaborator Jon Raymond, Reichardt (Meeks Cutoff, Certain Women, Wendy and Lucy) weaves a film that moves naturally and effortlessly in tune with the rhythms of their characters. Showing Up is crafted primarily around a woman who has plenty of emotions to share, but more often than not allows their art to do the talking for her. It’s not that Lizzy isn’t speaking her mind, or that she’s necessarily being ignored, but rather that the character is always tonally downplaying her troubles. Although she’s forced to raise her voice several times, Lizzy too often gives the people around her an unfair benefit of the doubt that her words will get through to them. It’s not exactly tragic when those concerns aren’t heard, but they keep building up to such a degree that a breaking point looms large. Williams brings an expected amount of inner strength and composure to Lizzy, but nicely downplays those traits through the sheer force of uncomfortable body language; always moving with a short gait, downward gaze, shuffling feet, and slightly hunched shoulders.

Lizzy displays a very specific kind of avoidant behaviour, but so too does every other character in Showing Up. Her dad is always prone to changing the subject. Her brother is prone to diving headlong into his paranoia. Jo tries to block out any negative energy in a bid to stay focused. One of her work colleagues and collaborators, the kindly Eric (André Benjamin), always tries to reframe errors as secret successes. While there are definitely a few arguments and close calls to be had along the way – with none of them playing out in forced, cliched fashion – Showing Up finds Reichardt offering unique insight into a facet of the artistic process that’s rarely discussed: compartmentalization.

Instead of falling back on the old chestnut that it takes a healthy dose of madness to create art, Reichardt applies a sliding scale to each of her characters and reframes said instabilities as an amalgamation of small annoyances. Some voices speak louder than others, but their reactions towards various stressful situations and personal differences can always been seen. Showing Up expertly illustrates characters with shared histories so deep that every conversation comes with quiet glances that speak as loudly as Reichardt and Raymond’s dialogue. The emotions of these characters – particularly Lizzy and Jo, whose relationship is marked by clear threads of professional competitiveness – are channeled into the art they create not via force and showy anger, but in a rather composed and grounded fashion. It’s not as flashy as some films about artists tend to be, but Showing Up certainly never lacks in pleasingly rich, realistic drama. It also manages to be Reichardt’s most naturally funny movie, but not in conventionally comedic ways.

Reichardt is a master of observation and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them fine details, with Showing Up simultaneously functioning as one of her most deceptively complex efforts yet. The artwork of the characters in and around this bucolic Oregon arts school is perfectly attuned with the performances and what the script calls for. Films about the art world are rarely this much in lockstep with the writing, but that’s a testament to Reichardt and the pros she frequently collaborates with. Similarly, the small town feeling and appearance of Showing Up is always simmering with some amount of chaos happening, whether it’s a busy morning in Lizzy’s office or partygoers rubbing elbows at a gallery opening. This section of Oregon seems like a gorgeous, meditative place to make art, but Reichardt shows that the stresses of day to day life and contentious personal interactions will always win out over nature. It’s just how we’re wired.

Showing Up is a picture perfect portrait of people striving for perfection who are delightfully and realistically imperfect. It questions how much nature and nurture guides us all throughout our daily lives, not just the lives of artists. In this respect, Reichardt’s latest might be one of the most uniquely mindful films of recent memory. How do we approach imperfection and setbacks? Do we embrace them, ignore them, blame ourselves, or blame outside forced beyond our control? Every potential answer has their own avatar in Showing Up, and as such, it’s a film that uniquely has something to offer everyone, provided that they are able to get on board with Reichardt’s trademark aesthetic. Even when things shift towards more conventional dramatic beats in its final stages, Showing Up remains a masterclass in true-to-life escalation and stakes; almost like a hang out movie where only a few of the characters look like they’re having any fun. In short, it’s the kind of exemplary work Reichardt has already built her career upon, but as always, it’s delivered in new and clever fashion.

Showing Up opens in Toronto, Vancouver (VIFF Centre), and Montreal (Cinema du Parc, with French subtitles) on Friday, April 14, 2023, including at TIFF Bell Lightbox, where director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt will be on hand for Q&As following a special screening on Thursday, April 13 at 7:15pm and on Friday, April 14 at 8:30pm. It expands to additional cities in the coming weeks.

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