Adorable & Witty
Interruptions be damned in Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up. Lizzy Carr (Michelle Williams) can’t seem to get away from them. A Portland sculptor whose days away from a small show in town, she’s determined to finish her work in time. Unfortunately, the humor and humdrum of ordinary daily life don’t make it easy for her.
Showing Up is a tender love letter to the struggling artist. The art world is not glamorized here nor is it portrayed as a negative burden. Simply an examination of what for many is a rather ordinary, sometimes challenging yet rewarding lifestyle. Many artists don’t have the luxury of art as their only job. They must work and pursue their creativity on the side. Lizzy works as her mother Jean’s (Maryann Plunkett) secretary at an art school that for the Oregon community is a “garden of Eden” so to speak. Showing Up’s portrayal of the Pacific Northwest art scene is very cultural. It’s definitely a huge thing out there and these people treat it almost like an organized religion. The smell of clay is like an Italian man in America’s memory of his mother’s home cooking back in Italy. Getting your sculptures taken out of the Kiln is like getting presents on Christmas morning.
So many people attend this art school where Jean teaches. Some are pursuing a life in art. Many are simply having fun. It’s not an elaborate art school, more like a summer camp. Lizzy eats her pasta salad outside on a hot day as people lay in the grass, others participate in a freestyle movement class, and inside, boxes of yarn are proven useful. It’s a utopian paradise that Lizzy wants to embrace but something seems to be holding her back.
Is it her own insecurity or is she simply having one of those weeks artists as she knows only too well? I guess that’s what it is. She can’t get her mind off her brother Sean (John Magaro) who clearly has some kind of mental illness that both her parents dismiss as they’re clearly from a different generation and find it easier to ignore such matters. It doesn’t help that Jean and her ex-husband (Judd Hirsch) can’t be in the same room together without quarreling in less than 5 minutes. In her defense, he is unbearably selfish and insufferably narcissistic. As though Lizzy hasn’t enough on her plate, the friendly yet oblivious Kiln operator (Andre Benjamin) burns one of her sculptures and shrugs it off claiming he admires “imperfections” to a visibly annoyed Lizzy.
There’s definitely a kind of sadness to all this but also a silent humor. Showing Up is a drama but has many comedic moments. The whole ensemble really gives Showing Up its storyline but the dynamic between Lizzy and her friend/landlord Jo (Hong Chau) is the heart of the film. Jo is an artist as well and is much more successful than Lizzy. There’s definitely a one-sided rivalry as Jo doesn’t compete with Lizzy but they’re at very different stages in their career and Lizzy can’t help but harbor a bit of resentment while being proud of her friend at the same time.
They live in a two-unit house that Jo’s family helped her refurnish. Jo is now at a place where she can pursue her art without any additional sources of income and a very stressed-out Lizzy obviously can’t relate. The chemistry between Michelle Williams and Hong Chau sizzles with perfection. They are so believable as best friends who grew up together and are now in different places with different personalities. One is more practical, the other more footloose and carefree.
The first time we see Jo, she’s all excited about her new tire swing. She so very adorably rolls the tire across the sidewalk and uses a rope to tie it to a tree. Such pure innocence Chau captures, especially in this early moment. Her new swing is a bigger priority for her than Lizzy’s broken water heater. Lizzy is clearly her best friend from childhood but she’s also her tenet and the happy chirpy Jo doesn’t seem to be taking her landlord obligations very seriously. Just take the conversation between Lizzy standing outside as Jo puts together her new swing.
Lizzy: I don’t know what I’m supposed to do without hot water.
Jo: Lizzy, I told you, you could just use mine. My show’s open on Friday. I’ll be free to deal with it after that.
Lizzy: I have a show too you know. You’re not the only one with a deadline.
Jo: Yeah but I have Two shows which is insane.
Jo is not saying that her work’s not as important. She’s just tone-deaf because she’s so distracted with her celebratory mannerisms. As if no hot water to take a shower is bad enough, Lizzy’s mischievous orange cat attacks a pigeon that flies inside. Of course, this happens at two in the morning and Lizzy removes the pigeon from her home without touching it only for Jo to find the wounded bird the next morning unaware Lizzy had removed it. Jo tapes the poor bird’s broken wing and prepares a little bed box for it as it coos innocently. Jo hilariously guilts Lizzy into babysitting the wounded fowl as the studio of Jo’s upcoming show is making way too much noise for the tiny creature.
Lizzy literally takes the pigeon with her to work and it’s nesting in its little bed on her desk as she prints out flyers for another artist. The pigeon requires constant care and by the time Jo arrives home for the night, Lizzy has just started finishing her remaining sculptures, hoping there’s enough time to bring them to Eric. Lizzy tells Jo that her whole day was disrupted and Jo responds by happily picking up the box and telling the Pigeon to “say goodbye to Aunty Lizzy”. Michelle Williams is so convincing as the lead of Showing Up and so authentic in her portrayal of ordinary frustration.
Hong Chau however is truly the crown jewel. Actors work for many years before reaching success and Hong Chau’s success is really starting to skyrocket. Fresh off her first Oscar nomination for The Whale and the box office success of The Menu, she has films directed by Wes Anderson and Yorgos Lanthimos coming out later in the year as well as a crucial role in the new Netflix show, The Night Agent and she’s just finished filming a heist thriller in Boston alongside Matt Damon.
Many new artists have potential that feels so raw in that they’re so fresh and unique. Chau has something greater. She has a passionate approach that’s not so raw but ripe. A ripening like a juicy strawberry in time for summer. Hollywood is truly a meat grinder that chews up its newcomers and spits them out all for the sake of money. Many newcomers are determined to find their own way and if Chau can keep that independent spirit and remain selective in how she chooses her roles, I truly believe she could become one of post Covid’s most prominent and important actors.
The final shot of Showing Up is what independent cinema is all about. The film is adorable, witty, sentimental, and beautiful. A simple story about people just living their everyday lives in the pursuit of creating something they love. We all need that, don’t we?
Victoria Film Festival. Retrieved April 20, 2023, from https://www.victoriafilmfestival.com/product/exotica-canada-film-day/