Showing Up

USA 2022, 108 mins
Director: Kelly Reichardt

From the rising tensions of a make-or-break week of a Portland artist getting ready for a big show, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt carves a profound, gorgeously layered portrait of a woman that is as much about what makes up a life as it is about making art. Michelle Williams shimmers with complexity as Lizzy, who is trying to hold things together when they keep trying to fall apart. Her hot water heater is busted, her brother might be going off the rails, her divorced parents are exasperating in their own separate ways, she’s surrounded by free spirits at the arts college where she works… and all this lies just below the raw surface of the work that feeds her soul.

It is through Lizzy’s deeply relatable, often comical, everyday tribulations on her way to a longed-desired achievement that Showing Up becomes a quiet tour de force. Out of pressurised moments of absurdity and inspiration, out of crazy-making yet sustaining relationships, there emerges the beautiful, wondrously jagged shape of a person’s life.

The film is Reichardt’s most sweetly comedic, yet it swerves irony. Instead, the fun comes from the awkwardness of Lizzy being Lizzy, from the hippy throwbacks of the Portland art scene, and the contradictory dynamics of Lizzy’s many push-and-pull relationships. Over the course of one frantic week, Reichardt takes us into the fabric of how Lizzy makes it through harried days and night-time triumphs in her garage studio, where she goes through the process of making her art.

Says Williams, ‘I think this story is relatable to anyone who ever tried to make something out of nothing. It’s about someone trying to overcome lots of resistance, inside and out, and break down obstacles to do what she loves, because life is always getting completely in the way.’

Life does get in the way unceasingly for Lizzy, but perhaps this simply is the way. Lizzy’s frustrations fuel her art, and her art in turn enlarges her view of who she can be, which fuels her again in a never-ending circle. This circularity is also evident in Lizzy’s complex kinship with Jo, played by Hong Chau. Adding to the roster of Reichardt’s probing explorations of the vital ties of friendship, Jo is Lizzy’s artistic peer, her neighbour and landlord. Says Chau, ‘Showing Up shows how the things that motivate you aren’t always what you think they are. They’re your family, your relationships, your community.’

As her show looms, the crucial question for Lizzy is can she continue to show up for others while also showing up for herself? The pleasure is that we get to see, from the inside, how Lizzy answers. Puncturing the tropes of movies about artists with its comic touch and excavations of how we become ourselves through others, Showing Up gets to something deeper and more personal.

In a way, the film operates as ‘a corrective to the standard artist biopic,’ notes Reichardt’s long-time writing partner, Jon Raymond. Here, the engine of the story is not a vaunted prodigy struggling alone but Lizzy’s entire disorderly family and community.

Reichardt has set most of her films in Oregon, perhaps the metaphorical far edge of American seeking. Showing Up takes place in modern Portland, the city known for its DIY, counterculture lifestyle, its self-declared ‘weirdness’, and its own variety of quixotic American Dream: artists, outsiders and non-conformists trying to forge a community.

The story, though, didn’t start there. Instead, Reichardt and Raymond began making a movie about early 20th century Canadian artist Emily Carr – drawn to the years Carr spent so distracted by being a landlord that she entirely stopped painting. They loved the idea of an artist biopic about an artist doing everything but art. But a trip to British Columbia revealed that Carr’s name and statues were splashed across the province. ‘We were kind of deflated to find Carr was so iconic – we didn’t want to write about a hugely famous artist,’ Reichardt explains.

Then, things took a different turn. ‘While on this trip, both our families experienced crises,’ she continues. ‘It was hard to concentrate because we were always on our phones dealing with things back home. At the time, the trip just seemed kind of unsuccessful, but looking back, everything that happened was relevant to what the Showing Up script became.’

The trip’s escalating pile of distractions suddenly became the very core of what they wanted to write about. ‘Our focus turned closer to our own world, to the artists in our lives past and present,’ says Reichardt. Raymond notes, ‘Part of it was that Kelly and I really wanted to stay out of the rage of the last several years and do a story about something that we like, and we both really like visual art.’

Raymond drew in part on years of dabbling in arts criticism in Portland and observing the local arts scene. ‘Writing about art is kind of just a weird side hobby but it’s also been a way for me to think more deeply about regionalism and identity,’ he says.

While thinking about the script, Reichardt made two short artist films – one of Michelle Segre working in her Bronx studio, and the other of Jessica Jackson Hutchins working in a ceramics studio at Cal State. ‘This was research to see how things get made, what a day in the studio is like,’ says Reichardt.

In exploring the many avenues of Lizzy’s identity, Reichardt and Raymond increasingly became rapt with the kind of ’70s-era films that revolutionised comedy by bringing in a fresh sensitivity to the personal. ‘We were thinking of the kind of comedies that don’t get made much anymore, soft, situational comedies, like Elaine May’s,’ says Raymond. ‘The story of Showing Up is not always light-hearted, but we were exploring in a comic register.’

Some of the films Reichardt and Raymond viewed include May’s romantic farce A New Leaf; Jonathan Demme’s CB radio tale Citizens Band; Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends, about female friends trying to make it in Manhattan; and Jack Hazan’s semi-fictionalised doc about painter David Hockney, A Bigger Splash. Reichardt says, ‘One thing I love in Hazan’s film is when Hockney’s agent complains that David wasted six months and really painted A Bigger Splash in two weeks’ time. Hockney explains that the two weeks couldn’t have happened without the six months of hanging out and partying.’

Showing Up’s own affectionately honest humour arises in part from a willingness to be diverted by Lizzy’s diversions – to mine her world, the convoluted people in it and her reactions to them for more insights into who she is and how she got to this personal crossroads. Says Reichardt of Lizzy’s detours, some inescapable, others self-created, ‘For some people, angst and tension are necessary for getting down to work. Most artists I know really put themselves through the ringer.’

Lizzy’s work garners meaning from those around her, and the film also brings the work of real-life artists to attention. These include the ceramic women of Portland-based Cynthia Lahti and the large-scale installations of Bronx-based Michelle Segre, which stand in respectively for Lizzy and Jo’s work. ‘When working on the script, this is the art Jon and I imagined for Lizzy and Jo, so it’s such good fortune that these artists agreed to let me use their work in the film,’ says Reichardt.

Perhaps the person who most appreciates Lizzy’s creative powers is Jo. And it is Jo who brings to the fore how much of our emotional lives and personal yearnings are distilled not through romance, work, or family, but through friendships, one of Reichardt and Raymond’s most striking and prevalent themes. Says Raymond, ‘I think what interests us about friendship is that it is the most democratic of relationships. You’re born into your family, and you’re stuck with that, but friendship is where we get to be citizens together by choice.’
Production notes

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
a filmscience production
Presented by: A24
Produced by: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani
Co-producer: Louise Lovegrove
Line Producer: Becky Glupczynski
Casting by: Gayle Keller
Written by: Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
Director of Photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Editor: Kelly Reichardt
Production Designer: Anthony Gasparro
Costume Designer: April Napier
Score by: Ethan Rose
Flute by: André Benjamin

Michelle Williams (Lizzy)
Hong Chau (Jo)
André Benjamin (Eric)
Todd-o-Phonic Todd (radio DJ)
Lauren Lakis (Terri)
Denzel Rodriguez (William)
Jean-Luc Boucherot (Peter)
Ted Rooney (Ted)
Maryann Plunkett (Jean)
Heather Lawless (Marlene)
John Magaro (Sean)
James Le Gros (Ira)
Judd Hirsch (Bill)

USA 2022
108 mins

A Park Circus/Universal release

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