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'Showing Up' is a rare glimpse of an artist at (very hard) work

Michelle Williams is a sculptor who makes clay figures of women in <em>Showing Up.</em>
A24
Michelle Williams is a sculptor who makes clay figures of women in Showing Up.

Showing Up is the fourth movie that Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams have made together, and I hope there are many more to come. Their collaboration has given us some of Williams' most quietly memorable characters: a young drifter living out of her car in Wendy and Lucy, or a 19th-century pioneer heading west along the Oregon Trail in Meek's Cutoff.

Showing Up is a lighter, funnier piece of work; it's pretty much the first Reichardt movie that could be described as a comedy. But like all her films, it's a model of indie realism, made with a level of rigorous observation and rueful insight you rarely see in American movies.

Williams plays Lizzy, an introverted sculptor in Portland, Ore., who makes clay figures of women. She has a local show of her work coming up, and she's racing to finish her sculptures in time. But the universe isn't making it easy for her. She works full-time in the office at an art college, where her boss is none other than her mom, who, like almost everyone else, doesn't take Lizzy's creative pursuits too seriously. And so Lizzy has to do her sculpting in her spare time, in the apartment she rents out from her friend Jo, terrifically played by Hong Chau.

Jo is also an artist, and a more successful one: Her elaborate mixed-media installations have all the wow factor that Lizzy's lovely but modest sculptures don't. It only adds to the tension that Jo isn't the most attentive landlord.

Reichardt and her co-writer, Jon Raymond, perfectly nail the passive-aggressive vibe of Lizzy and Jo's relationship without overdoing it. There's real nuance to both characters: You can understand why Lizzy resents Jo's flakiness, and you can also see why Jo doesn't go out of her way for someone as frosty as Lizzy.

Things get a little more complicated — but also more poignant — when Jo rescues a wounded pigeon in their yard, and she and Lizzy take turns nursing it back to health. This isn't the first time Reichardt has given an animal a prominent role in her movies, as she did in Wendy and Lucy and First Cow. And we learn something about Lizzy from the careful, attentive way she looks after the bird, even while juggling her deadlines — namely, that she's used to making sacrifices for the sake of others.

Lizzy spends a fair amount of time checking in on her artist brother, who has mental health issues and who's treated by their mom as the tortured genius of the family. She also mediates tensions between her parents, who are divorced; her dad is a retired potter who's going through something of a late-in-life crisis. He's played by Judd Hirsch, who, as it happens, played the uncle of Williams' character in Steven Spielberg's recent The Fabelmans.

That movie would make a great double bill with this one. Williams' two characters could hardly be more different, but in each movie she plays a woman who essentially puts her art on hold for her family's sake. The fact that most of her family members in Showing Up are also steeped in the art world doesn't make as much of a difference as you might think.

Reichardt's movie is all about the challenge of finding the time, the space, the money and the energy to pursue your calling. It's also about how making art can be both a joy and incredibly hard work. Lizzy's story is interspersed with almost documentary-like sequences of the art college where she works; we see students painting, weaving, dancing and building installations. There's a nicely personal feel to these moments, informed by Reichardt's own years teaching at Bard College and other schools. But she lingers most of all in the scenes of Lizzy finally getting some time to herself at her workbench, molding her clay, setting her figures aside to dry and then filling in the details with paint.

Watching Lizzy lose herself in her craft for minutes on end, I was reminded of just how rarely the movies show us, really show us, an artist at work. We get a lot of biopics about creative geniuses, but nothing like the richness of texture and insight that Reichardt gives us. It hardly matters that Lizzy may not be destined for fame, because you believe in her and her work at every moment. She's a wondrous creation, and so is this movie.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.