[An early draft of this review was originally published on May 23, 2023 at Give Me Some Light on Substack, almost three months before it appeared here. Subscribe, and you’ll read these reviews while the movies are still in theaters!]

Showing Up, the latest film from the provocative, meditative American storyteller Kelly Reichardt (writer/director of First Cow, Certain Women, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and Old Joy), stars the great Michelle Williams as Lizzy. Lizzy is a sculpture artist striving to make progress in her work while also meeting the demands of a bill-paying job. And it’s not a particularly exciting job, but it’s the kind of job so many artists find they have to manage in order to afford having any time at all for their true calling.

Lizzy is, arguably, a little better off than some of us who are always striving against daunting challenges to live a life of creativity. At least she gets to work in an environment surrounded by other artists and art students, where the employers appreciate the imagination. (This runs quite contrary to artists in academia who often learn the hard way that their administrators don’t understand, respect, or care about creative work.) Specifically, Lizzy works a desk job at the Oregon College of Arts and Craft — an actual art school that recently closed.

But an artist who works among other artists also faces distinct challenges. In fact, as I live and work in various circles of visual artists and writers, Lizzy’s challenges are so familiar to me — so specifically and piercingly personal to me — that I emerged from the theater feeling like I’d just grieved my way through the tortured testimony of a close friend.

Don’t get me wrong — I mean that as a recommendation. While Reichardt’s characteristic truth-telling makes some aspects of this poignant portrait rather painful, Showing Up is, above all, a comedy. And a very funny one.

Michelle Williams captures “the look” of any artist gazing at another artist’s impressive work. She’s feeling a mix of amazement and jealousy, and she’s longing to touch others the way this creativity is touching her. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

It’s easy to read Showing Up as something of a memoir: Like director Jim Jarmusch’s whimsical and episodic Paterson in 2016, which followed a poet as idiosyncratic and introspective as Jarmusch himself, here’s a movie by a singular artist about a singular artist that is so full of truths known only by artists who have lived them that it is going to be beloved by those artists.

And, like Paterson, it’s also on a wavelength that will make its subtle comedy tremendously funny for artists. And not just “Ha-Ha” funny (although there’s plenty of that), but “Laugh-of-Recognition” Funny — the Funny that the Over the Rhine song says “makes you laugh when you feel like dying.” Indeed, I laughed out loud at its wit and wisdom even as I felt like crying.

For example, we’re drawn into the maddening ways in which mundane, practical complications can feel part of a conspiracy designed to prevent an artist from concentrating. Lizzy often teeters on the edge of madness or despair over an accumulation of interruptions:

  • the fact that her apartment’s hot water supply has vanished;
  • the fact that her landlord (the brilliant Hong Chau, who seems to be everywhere these days) can’t get around to helping her because she is an artist herself under extraordinary pressure;
  • the fact that Lizzy’s landlord asks for her help with time-consuming and emotionally demanding distractions, like the rehabilitation of a pigeon injured by Lizzy’s own cat, and
  • the seemingly inescapable dramas of Lizzy’s distinctly unhappy family (played by Judd Hirsch, MaryAnn Plunkett, and John Magaro).

And that just scratches the hand-painted surface of Lizzy’s predicament.

Michelle Williams captures “the look” of any artist at their “day job” when they’re hearing about someone else’s big show. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

These kinds of things are the sort of trouble that I find myself and other artists commiserating about on a daily basis. Having said that, I was the only one in my audience of about 30 laughing out loud as Lizzy’s exasperation seems to age her before our very eyes. And I laughed almost all the way through the movie until my anxiety nearly wrecked me in the last 15 minutes. I tried to be quiet. I hope I didn’t bother anybody.

There is a particular kind of torture in the life of the artist who loves not only art, and not only themselves, and not only their family and neighbors, but the world around them. If the world figures out that you are willing to love, willing to care, willing to watch over the injured little things of the world, then the world will ensure that you open your door to a world of endless needs. It will wring that love out of you until you have almost nothing left for your art. And you will feel like a failure, both in trying to save your unsavable world, and in realizing the art that you could complete if only everyone would give you some peace and quiet. That is the truth this movie knows.

Michelle Williams captures “the look” of any artist when it’s time for their own big show and The Family (in this case, Judd Hirsch and John Magaro) shows up on their worst behavior. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

I’m so grateful — and perhaps a little less lonely — to find companionship like that in this movie. It’s like finding a film made in a language that you speak fluently but that you never expected to hear art the movies.

And what a great performance by Michelle Williams, who was impressive in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, and who has given us such a wide variety of nuanced characters over the years. (I still look back with deep fondness on her supporting role in The Station Agent, where her chemistry with Peter Dinklage was such a delicate joy.)

Showing Up is going to be one of those films that I go on recommending for years to come, but with particular enthusiasm to certain people: those who spend their “free time” scowling at rough drafts of poems, sketchbooks full of concepts, and differing arrangements of songs, trying to quiet the noise of the everyday so that they can make room for inspiration.

It seems appropriate that I saw this film at Seattle Grand Illusion: a theater that has been a labor of love for its managers for decades, and which has survived against all odds. The building in which it has given Seattle moviegoers such rare and wonderful occasions to revisit classics and discover rare wonders … is being sold. So, farewell, Grand Illusion Cinemas! Thank you for so many years of unforgettable films! You introduced me to The Son by the Dardenne brothers, which is one of my all-time Top Ten favorite films! You introduced me to About Elly, by Asghar Farhadi, which helped kindle my deep love for Iranian cinema. And those are just two examples. This was a beautiful date night for our long-lasting relationship. I’m ever so grateful. And I hope that your intention to come back to life in a new location comes true.

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