Review: Showing Up Explores the Intersection of Art and Life in Immersive, Often Humorous Ways

In their fourth collaboration, writer/director Kelly Reichardt and actor Michelle Williams have made their most ambitious work to date. Showing Up is the story of a struggling artist named Lizzy (Williams), who just wants a little peace and quiet in her apartment so she can make her small-scale sculptures in advance of her upcoming show. That concept may not sound particularly ambitious, but the way Reichardt and frequent co-writer Jonathan Raymond frame Lizzy’s world also incorporates themes about the intersection of art and commerce, the many outside influences that seem to work against creators in their efforts to create, and the simple truth that it takes more than skill and talent to be successful or celebrated in the art community.

Setting her film in a Portland art school/collective, Reichardt has written Lizzy as persnickety, which is not to say that she doesn’t have legitimate gripes about the way the world treats her. She lives in an apartment maintained by fellow artist Jo (the fantastic Hong Chau), who is everything Lizzy is not as both a person and artist. Things seem to come easier for Jo, including friendships and inspiration. Jo’s artwork is big, bold, made to be experienced, filling up a room; when she has her own show shortly before Lizzy, she even has a catalog. Lizzy’s entire collection of clay statues fits on what is basically a single table, and while it’s quite beautiful, it seems fragile and small, because it is.

Less a film with a plot and more about immersing us in this world, Showing Up moves from moment to moment with not much concern with how the sequences are connected as much as they are about how they collectively help us understand these two vastly different characters. At one point, Lizzy and Jo find a pigeon with a broken wing and Lizzy gets it in her head that she wants to nurse it back to health, even after the local veterinarian wonders whey she would ever want to save a pigeon. The pigeon is passed back and forth between Lizzy and Jo, like a child during a custody hearing, but Lizzy sees something in this bird that reminds her of herself and she becomes attached to the scrappy little creature.

We also get a sense of Lizzy's psychology when we meet her truly dysfunctional family, including her father (Judd Hirsch, rounding out the impressive roster of recently Oscar-nominated players), mother (Maryann Plunkett), and mentally ill brother (John Magaro, from Reichardt’s First Cow). Her parents are long divorced, so Lizzy knows that asking them both to her opening is a big deal, but once they arrive, we wonder why she wanted any family member there in the first place. I also like Williams’ scenes with kiln operator Eric (played by André Benjamin, aka  André 3000), who finishes her statues and has such a personable demeanor that we half expect the beginnings of a love connection, which of course never transpires. The cast is rounded out by unexpected appearances by once-frequent art-house staples, such as Amanda Plummer and James Le Gros. It all adds up to an atmosphere that feels loose and often quite humorous, making Showing Up one of Reichardt’s most accessible films, whether that was intentional or accidental, we may never know.

I have family members who are artists (went to art schools in New York and all that), and there were things in this movie that rang so true that it took my breath away. Reichardt is showing us this place and these characters; she’s dropping us right in the middle of them and asking us to spend time with them, think creatively alongside of them, and wonder whether we could live as they do. There are times when it’s difficult to tell whether the filmmaker is gently mocking these folks and their unsustainable way of life or honoring them. My suspicion is that it’s both, and that’s the perfect place from which to observe this neurotic little film that is one of my favorites of the year so far.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.