DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Three of this year's Academy Award-nominated actors - Michelle Williams, Hong Chau and Judd Hirsch - appear together in the new comedy "Showing Up," now playing in theaters. It's the latest from the director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt, and it stars Williams as a struggling sculptor being pulled in many directions as she tries to meet a looming deadline. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Showing Up" is the fourth movie that Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams have made together, and I hope there are many more to come. Their collaboration has given us some of Williams' most quietly memorable characters - a young drifter living out of her car in "Wendy And Lucy" or a 19th century pioneer heading west along the Oregon Trail in "Meek's Cutoff." "Showing Up" is a lighter, funnier piece of work. It's pretty much the first Reichardt movie that could be described as a comedy. But like all her films, it's a model of indie realism made with a level of rigorous observation and rueful insight you rarely see in American movies.
Williams plays Lizzy, an introverted Portland, Ore.-based sculptor who makes clay figures of women. She has a local show coming up, and she's racing to finish her sculptures in time. But the universe isn't making it easy for her. She works full time in the office at an art college, where her boss is none other than her mom, who, like almost everyone else, doesn't take Lizzy's creative pursuits too seriously. And so Lizzy has to do her sculpting in her spare time in the apartment she rents out from her friend Jo, terrifically played by Hong Chau. Jo is also an artist and a more successful one. Her elaborate mixed media installations have all the wow factor that Lizzy's lovely but modest sculptures don't. It only adds to the tension that Jo isn't the most attentive landlord. At one point, Jo is putting together a swing with an old tire in the backyard when Lizzy shows up to ask about getting her broken water heater fixed.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHOWING UP")
HONG CHAU: (As Jo) Hey, Lizzy. Check it out - been hoping to find a good tire for this tree for ages.
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Lizzy) Jo, the water situation is getting worse - barely gets lukewarm now, just a few minutes of lukewarm and then cold.
CHAU: (As Jo) That sounds serious. I'm on it - just got to get through this week first. I shouldn't even be here right now. I've got so much to do.
WILLIAMS: (As Lizzy) I do, too. And I don't know what I'm supposed to do without hot water.
CHAU: (As Jo) Lizzy, I told you you could use my shower.
WILLIAMS: (As Lizzy) I want my own water working.
CHAU: (As Jo) My show is open on Friday. I'll be free to deal with it after that.
WILLIAMS: (As Lizzy) I have a show too, you know, I'm just - you're not the only one with a deadline.
CHAU: (As Jo) I know, but I have two shows, which is insane.
CHANG: Reichardt and her co-writer Jon Raymond perfectly nail the passive-aggressive vibe of Lizzy and Jo's relationship without overdoing it. There's real nuance to both characters. You can understand why Lizzy resents Jo's flakiness, and you can also see why Jo doesn't go out of her way for someone as frosty as Lizzy. Things get a little more complicated, but also more poignant, when Jo rescues a wounded pigeon in their yard and she and Lizzy take turns nursing it back to health. This isn't the first time Reichardt has given an animal a prominent role in her movies, as she did in "Wendy And Lucy" and "First Cow." And we learn something about Lizzy from the careful, attentive way she looks after the bird, even while juggling her deadlines - namely, that she's used to making sacrifices for the sake of others.
Lizzy spends a fair amount of time checking in on her artist brother who has mental health issues and who's treated by their mom as the tortured genius of the family. She also mediates tensions between her parents, who are divorced. Her dad is a retired potter who's going through something of a late-in-life crisis. He's played by Judd Hirsch, who has, it happens, played the uncle of Williams' character in Steven Spielberg's recent "The Fabelmans." That movie would make a great double-bill with this one. Williams' two characters could hardly be more different, but in each movie, she plays a woman who essentially puts her art on hold for her family's sake. The fact that most of her family members in "Showing Up" are also steeped in the art world doesn't make as much of a difference as you might think.
Reichardt's movie is all about the challenge of finding the time, the space, the money, and the energy to pursue your calling. It's also about how making art can be both a joy and incredibly hard work. Lizzy's story is interspersed with almost documentary-like sequences of the art college where she works. We see students painting, weaving, dancing and building installations. There's a nicely personal feel to these moments, informed by Reichardt's own years teaching at Bard College and other schools.
But she lingers most of all in the scenes of Lizzy finally getting some time to herself at her workbench, molding her clay, setting her figures aside to dry, and then filling in the details with paint. Watching Lizzy lose herself in her craft for minutes on end, I was reminded of just how rarely the movies show us, really show us, an artist at work. We get a lot of biopics about creative geniuses, but nothing like the richness of texture and insight that Reichardt gives us. It hardly matters that Lizzy may not be destined for fame because you believe in her and her work at every moment. She's a wondrous creation, and so is this movie.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Showing Up," starring Michelle Williams. On Monday's show, actor Keri Russell, best known for playing the lead on the TV series "Felicity" and for starring on "The Americans" as Elizabeth Jennings, a Soviet spy living undercover in the United States. Russell got her start on the all-new "Mickey Mouse Club" when she was 15. She now stars in the new Netflix political drama "The Diplomat." I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. We'll close the show with this track from the new album, "Stage And Screen," by guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli. The album comes out next week April 21. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST IN TIME")
JOHN PIZZARELLI: (Singing) I was resting comfortably face down in the gutter. Life was serene. I knew where I was at. There's no hope for him, my dearest friends would mutter. I was something dragged in by the cat. Then, just in time - I found you just in time. Before you came, my time was running low. I was lost. The losing dice were tossed. My bridges all were crossed - nowhere to go. Now you're here, and now I know just where I'm going. No more doubt or fear - I found my way. For love came just in time. You found me just in time and changed my lonely life that lovely day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.