It’s been said that 90% of parenting is showing up. Whether that’s nurturing a child or a talent, the percentage is likely the same. Thus, it is with the Kelly Reichardt film entitled SHOWING UP. The drolly funny and quietly moving film concerns a grumpy, quasi-depressed artist named Lizzy who struggles to create her art and manage her life. She’s a sculptor living in Portland, OR, all but overwhelmed by everything she’s got on her plate, from a fast-approaching gallery showing to managing her oddball friends and acquaintances, eccentric family members, and a very needy cat. The good news is that Lizzy is an accomplished if unsung artist. The bad news, and what guides this film’s amusing story, is that she is not very good at mastering the art of daily living.
Michelle Williams, working with Reichardt for a fourth time here, plays Lizzy as an artist somewhere between an earthy Bohemian and a slouchy Walter Matthau. She schlumps around in her ill-fitting clothes and ratty sweater, kvetching and sighing about all the irritations and shortcomings in her life keeping her from completing her sculptures. Chief amongst the distractions is her fellow artist & landlord Jo (Hong Chau), not to mention her divorced and equally self-absorbed parents (Maryann Plunkett and Judd Hirsch), plus a hot water heater in her apartment that’s on the fritz. As if she doesn’t already have enough distractions, along comes a wayward pigeon with a damaged wing in dire need of some TLC.
The pigeon had a run-in with her feisty cat Ricky and now Lizzy feels obligated to nurse the bird back to health. Thus, in between juggling her job at a local school, trying to stay warm in her humdrum home, and finishing the glazing of all of her works that need to be readied for her showcase, Lizzy starts schlepping the bird about in a box, keeping a mindful eye on its recovery. The winged creature is a cute little chirper, but even more importantly, the bird represents a clear and obvious symbol in Reichardt’s narrative. Just as the homeless orange cat was a proxy for the wandering musician played by Oscar Isaac in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, so too does the bird represent Lizzy here. All the care and attention she showers upon the pigeon represents the love that Lizzy craves. But within her artists’ community, such attention will be hard to come by.
As she nurses the pigeon back to health, Lizzy learns to prioritize, and thusly rejects many of the distractions that would normally cripple her. She concentrates on readying her sculptures of women, ‘the girls’ as she calls them for her show, and again, the parenting metaphor is underlined by Reichardt and her fellow screenwriter Jonathan Raymond. The arc of the misanthropic Lizzy doesn’t bend a lot, but she does start to learn the art of self-care. She even learns to keep her antagonistic competition with Jo to a low boil.
Williams can play both glamorous and frumpy, and a great deal of the wry humor here comes from her willingness to play such a down-in-the-mouth grump. In the biggest laugh in the film, Williams makes comic hay out of scene where her Lizzy goes off on Jo in a increasingly hostile voicemail. Charming turns from Chau, Hirsch, Plunkett, and Andre Benjamin infuse the show with some breeziness and Reichardt captures the weird and idiosynchratic world of contained, local artists communities as well. Her line about Jo’s show being so special it will have a catalog is one of the highlights of her clever script.
At times, the pacing feels a bit too languid, and the characters run the risk of edging towards being awful through their selfishness, but Reichardt never lets any one of them become too much of a jerk. A lot of the art on hand is inspiring and Lizzy’s creations (courtesy of sculptor Cynthia Lahti) are truly exceptional.
SHOWING UP is an arthouse film that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those willing to spend time with it and watch its slow build of a character study, they will find themselves rewarded with choice observations about the human condition. No catalog necessary.