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In Showing Up, Michelle Williams tries to make art while life interrupts

When you’re young, you think doing creative work is all about the lightning strike of inspiration, the muse turning up and giving you some gift. But read interviews with artists, or become one yourself, and you realize that actually making art means a life of simply turning up, most days. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it sucks. And when life knocks you off course, you just keep going.

I think that’s why Kelly Reichardt named her new film Showing Up, and it’s probably why I love it so much. Like all of Reichardt’s films — among them Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and First Cow — it is a movie about trudging toward an uncertain destination, at times enjoying and at times enduring your companions, and sometimes sitting down to rest. In this case, that destination is art.

It’s Reichardt’s fourth collaboration with Michelle Williams and seventh with co-writer Jon Raymond, significant not just because it’s relatively unusual but because it signals that Reichardt knows a thing or two about working with, and around, other people. Williams plays Lizzy, a stressed-out Portland sculptor with a show coming up and a broken water heater. Her landlord, Jo (Hong Chau, always terrific) is an artist, too, and has two shows coming up, which makes her slowness in fixing the water heater all the more galling to Lizzy.

Showing Up — an unusually cheerful and funny film for Reichardt — is, in its essence, a chronicle of a Sisyphean quest rendered against the backdrop of laid-back Portland. Lizzy needs to get work done, but the most mundane stuff keeps throwing itself in the way, and she can barely keep the rock from rolling back on her. There’s the matter of the water heater. There’s also the bird her cat injures, which becomes her responsibility. Her parents (Maryann Plunkett and Judd Hirsch), artists themselves, are being annoying; her dad has house guests that Lizzy is pretty sure are taking advantage of him. Her creatively inclined brother (John Magaro) seems to be on a downward spiral, and Lizzy isn’t sure what to do. She is barely keeping her head above water, and meanwhile her creeping fear that nobody will come to her show, will even want to see her work, is lurking in the background.

Two women stand on a sidewalk, looking up toward the sky.

Michelle Williams and Hong Chau in Showing Up.

Reichardt is a master at weaving a plot that’s so subtle that the inattentive viewer might be tempted to mistake it for merely a premise, a movie where “nothing happens.” That’s in part because what does happen is very everyday stuff, the kinds of things that happen to us all. You’re just trying to get your work done, but the phone keeps ringing, and that package needs mailing, and you don’t know what to have for lunch today, the dog needs walking, and you forgot the plumber had to be let in at noon. Like running on a treadmill, you’re doing a lot and going nowhere.

But Reichardt’s genius is in turning the frustrations of life — which have, in past films, ranged from a broken-down car to a broken-down covered wagon — into fodder for characters to either grow, or not. Her movies are road movies, even the ones that aren’t on the road, like this one; people are on a journey without a definite destination, with mishaps along the way, and, most often, with companions they find a little less than ideal.

In Showing Up, then, the task is to get a little further down the road. If you pay attention, you start to realize that this episode in Lizzy’s life is important precisely because it’s the point at which she might be tempted to quit — to give up making art, assume she’ll never be as celebrated as Jo, and take up some other task. The film’s tension comes from that question, though it never telegraphs it loudly: Which path will she choose?

It’s a particularly poignant tale coming from Reichardt, whose work is well-regarded by fans and critics. Her films premiere at prestigious festivals, and major actors seek her out. But her filmmaking practice is still deliberately minimalist and understated; she shoots in Portland, on small budgets, and has been a professor at Bard for a long time. Less disciplined and skilled filmmakers have lept from small-budget films to big-budget schlock and watched their work suffer as a result. Reichardt’s acclaim stems in part from her consistency and commitment to artistic freedom.

It’s not a freedom available to everyone, nor can everyone be good at their work. But it’s not hard to understand Lizzy as a stand-in for all the artists who find themselves working quietly, worrying that they might never get beyond the point they’re at, worrying that even thinking that way makes them less, somehow, of a real artist.

Showing Up is a knowing nod at everyone who finds making creative work a nearly impossible task amid the mundane distractions of ordinary life. So I take it as another road movie, one in which we’re the protagonists alongside Lizzy, and the movie is a companion along the way. For the attentive, those willing to settle into the film’s rhythm, it’s a balm and a wink — a gentle exhortation to keep, well, showing up.

Showing Up is playing in theaters.

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