Showing Up is a witty and insightful character study of a sculptor who navigates the mundane but unavoidable interruptions of everyday life in the week leading up to the opening of her new show. Directed and co-written by Kelly Reichardt, this 2022 Palm d’Or nominee is Kelly’s eighth feature and her fourth collaboration with Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams. (KIZJ: 4.5/5)
Being an artist can, at times, feel very contradictory. Life inspires the creation of art, but it can also be its biggest distraction.
“Lizzy” (a sculptor played by Michelle Williams) wants nothing more than to hide away with her clay in a “studio” located in the garage of the cheap apartment she rents in Portland (OR). But she’s constantly pulled away from her work by everything else in her life. She needs to pick up the phone to invite people to her show, she needs to feed her cat, and she also needs to remind “Jo” (Hong Chau)—her forgetful landlord, neighbor, and fellow artist—to fix the hot water.
Something is always getting in the way. When Lizzy’s cat attacks a pigeon in the middle of the night, nursing its broken wing becomes just another one of the things added to Lizzy’s list of distractions.
Nothing is too big, too small, or too unusual to be considered “art.”
During the day, Lizzy works as an administrative assistant at a fine-arts college where her mother “Jean” (Maryann Plunkett) is also her manager. In this close-knit community, there’s a sense of artistic freedom mixed with genuine respect as well as healthy competition. There are students weaving strings of yarn, teachers projecting patterns onto a tent, glasswork, pottery, painting, and even a class that explores the movement of the body on the grass fields. Nothing is too big, too small, or too unusual to be considered “art.”
As the camera wanders down the corridors of this college, audience members are given an unusual opportunity to see the creative process and explorations of art students. There’s nothing glamorous; it’s just hard work and dedication to the craft. Everyone is in overalls—day in day out—working, trying, creating, and learning.
Movies often romanticize the life of an artist. But Showing Up ignores the famous and goes beyond the highlights of a creative’s life. Kelly slows the pace and shows a rare glimpse of how much work goes into creating “art.” She gives a lot of space for thought and reflection by inviting the audience to observe the silent solitude which accompanies each act of creation. She also leaves in the witty remarks that Lizzy mutters to herself, and allows us to linger on Lizzy’s hands as she scrapes off an extra pieces of clay around her figurine’s dress. The audience hears the “sorry” that Lizzy whispers to another clay doll as she pulls off an arm, and we see her contemplative gaze as she assesses, judges, doubts, and decides whether she likes what she’s created.
This piece of slow cinema allows the audience time to get to know the personalities and situations of each character through observation. We come to trust that what might be unclear in the moment will be explained in the scenes that follow. The gradual introduction of the members of Lizzy’s family also reveals complex familial relationships in a very natural way. We learn that Lizzy’s mother, who, remember, is also her boss, is less than encouraging about Lizzy’s sculptures, and she seems to show a preference for Lizzy’s brother “Sean” (John Magaro). Meanwhile, her father “Bill” (Judd Hirsch) is also an artist, a retired potter who—now divorced from Lizzy’s mother—occasionally hosts strangers at his home. These are people with problems that you can imagine your own family members and neighbors having. Even the subtle sibling rivalry for attention and praise from parents that lingers into adulthood is on full display.
What Kelly Reichardt does exceptionally well in this film is portray artists in a uniquely respectful way. The way she has written them allows the audience to understand how each artist’s process can be different, but still valid and worthy. All of the characters are layered, and they all have traits that make them both likable and unlikable at the same time. Even when it’s clear that everyone is enamored by Jo’s big, bright yarn installations—work that will be featured in not one, but two exhibitions!—Lizzy still does a private walk-thru, and clearly appreciates the art that Jo has created. Despite the combination of professional envy and private annoyance (because of the water heater, the pigeon, and the whatever), Lizzy is still able to admire and respect Jo’s work.
Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond have written a fantastic script with dialogue that paints truthful portraits of what it means to be your average working artist. The sprinkles of humor throughout come at the most unexpected moments, but they are able to elicit laughter from the audience every time. The costume design by April Napier deserves a special mention because whether it’s the color palette or the style, the choices for each character’s wardrobe help build their personalities and display much that is left unsaid.
Whether it’s her school, her neighbor, her family, her cat, or even a random pigeon, these individual elements all become part of Lizzy’s process.
Showing Up is a piece of art about the minds and hands behind the creation of art. It blends the collisions between creative work and daily life perfectly. To watch Showing Up is to get the chance to be a fly on the wall and see up close how each sphere of Lizzy’s life weaves seamlessly into the others. Whether it’s her school, her neighbor, her family, her cat, or even a random pigeon, these individual elements all become part of Lizzy’s process.
The acting is impeccable. The chemistry between this powerful director-actor duo creates a beautiful depiction about the life of an individual that is intimate yet utterly familiar and naturalistic. I forgot I was watching an Oscar-nominee and one-time Marilyn Monroe. Michelle Williams—to me—was simply Lizzy the sculptor. Hong Chau (also an Oscar-nominee) is equally fantastic in the role of Jo, bringing conflict and internal comparisons that come with being a working creative. Kelly Reichardt’s direction is detailed and precise, every lingering shot and hesitant glance has a reason for being there.
Although the slow, naturalistic pace of Showing Up may be off-putting to some, it is a film that will be greatly appreciated by the right audience. For anyone who seeks inspiration, this is a film that will make you want to go out and create something–anything–and question what it means to be an artist.
© Katusha Jin (4/14/23) – Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Amelie Lasker’s review of Kelly’s film First Cow (2020).
Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s review of Kelly’s film Night Moves (2013).
Read more about the six films by women that were chosen to be included in NYFF 2019, including Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow.
Read about the Risk Appetite For Women Artists here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Michelle Williams as “Lizzy.”
Middle Photo: At the Angelica Theatre in Soho (NYC). Photo Credit: Jan Lisa Huttner (4/9/23)
Bottom Photo: Jan at the Angelica Café. Photo Credit: Richard Bayard Miller (4/9/23)
Featured image is owned by A24 and used here with permission. All Rights Reserved.