Review: An artist makes art, even as life interrupts the flow

A droll, easygoing procession of slights, obstacles and microaggressions on the road to an artist’s gallery opening, “Showing Up” could be classified as co-writer and director Kelly Reichardt’s first comedy since her “Old Joy” 17 years ago. But labels are deceptive. There’s subterranean seriousness underneath the deadpan-comic surface here, and much of Reichardt’s previous work found plenty of quiet comedy and seemingly accidental lightness amid some pretty tough lives.

This one’s a portrait of low-level frustration, endured and finally, slightly dispelled. Set among some denizens of the Portland, Oregon, art community, filmed largely on the campus of the former Oregon College of Art and Craft (closed in 2019, reopened and reimagined for the movie), “Showing Up” offers moviegoers a paradoxical experience if they’re up for it. It is a serene, pulse-lowering charmer about Lizzy, a ceramic sculptor played by frequent Reichardt collaborator Michelle Williams, who herself is anything but serene or pulse-lowering.

Reichardt and her screenwriting partner, Jonathan Raymond, spend a few days in close, empathetic proximity to this defensive crouch of a character. Lizzy comes from a family of artists, habitually sidelined by her divorced parents (Maryann Plunkett and Judd Hirsch) who always considered Lizzy’s brother (John Magaro) the prodigy. Lizzy has a deadline to meet: As she hustles to complete her series of ceramic dancing, leaping women, life keeps throwing her curveballs.

Her cat, for example. The cat injures a pigeon, and Lizzy’s landlady Jo (Hong Chau of “The Menu” and “The Whale”), also an artist, also with a gallery opening coming up, decides to nurse the bird back to health. Lizzy keeps the identity of the culprit to herself, and with guilt nipping at her conscience, she takes over the caretaking, relocating the bird’s sickbed (a box, so sickbox is the word) to her garage studio.

Jo’s house sits on a leafy Portland street, which seems like a slice of heaven — but there’s no hot water in Lizzy’s flat, and Jo keeps putting off the repairs. “Showing Up” plays it cool with Lizzy’s simmering artistic envy regarding Jo, but “Showing Up” is more about Lizzy’s temperamental envy. How can this woman go through her days in such a blase, confident way? It’s a mystery to her.

We spend considerable time watching Lizzie create her ceramic figures, and “Showing Up” is all the better for taking that time. The movie has a tiny motor of a narrative, but it’s just enough. Nothing is overstated, and a lot of “Showing Up” isn’t even stated; it’s simply shown, on the fly or with the merest emphasis on what Lizzie goes through as she completes her work.


3.5 stars (out of 4)

Rated: R (for brief graphic nudity)

Running time: 1:48

How to watch: Now in theaters