Showing Up was reviewed out of the Cannes Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
The starving artist is a well-worn cliché but Showing Up paints it with a new perspective. Struggling to finish her upcoming show, Lizzie (Michelle Williams) isn’t just starving – she’s ravenous. Living in a rented apartment with no hot water, the pressure is on to open an exhibition that will launch her burgeoning career. Unfortunately, she’s surrounded by other artists… and they’re all wrapped up in themselves.
Her neighbor, Jo (Hong Chau), is an artist too. More importantly, she’s one of Lizzie’s oldest friends and happens to be putting on her own exhibition – well, two. And she certainly won’t let Lizzie forget that. Showing Up isn’t an examination of the ruthless, cutthroat art world. No, it’s much more subtle than that. Instead, it focuses on Lizzie’s quiet longing. Suffering in silence, she rarely finds her voice, let alone the time and space to focus on her art. And when she does, it turns out that she’s very much not alone.
There’s a lot of expectation on Lizzie – too much. Embedded deep within the local artistic community, there’s always someone else focusing on their project. And at the moment, Jo’s two exhibitions dominate the artistic landscape. This rarely gives Lizzie space to breathe. Dominated by her own insecurities, she finds them intensified by the constant sidelining she experiences at the hands of her friends and family. Jo is the genius friend, her brother is the genius sibling… and nobody pays any mind to her.
It’s a tough place to be, emotionally, and Michelle Williams portrays the internal struggles of a neglected artist with beautiful precision. A wrinkled nose, and a muted glance, are all it takes for her to externalize the anguish Lizzie is bottling up. It’s a masterclass in subtlety from an actress who’s in top form. But focusing on the art within the film, the way Williams handles the clay when making her statuettes is mesmerizing and hypnotic.
Director Kelly Reichardt lingers almost too long on her hands as we watch her shape the putty into a limb or massage the clay to create the look she wants. Each shot is like a long, slow breath and we’re inhaling and exhaling along with her. The end result is an exhibition that comes alive – each statuette having a highly personal connection to the artist, and giving us a glimpse into the themes and subjects that dominate her life.
Elsewhere, John Magaro presents a cautionary tale as Lizzie’s brother, Sean. He, too, is in excellent form, skirting the edges of a mental health condition while others talk about his past behavior with hushed mentions. His erratic nature soon comes bubbling to the surface, but Magaro handles it with such sensitivity that the character never comes across as an insensitive caricature. It’s another muted performance, reflecting the thoughtful nature of this artistic family. An understated role, Magaro plays it with the integrity it deserves.
Fittingly, Lizzie primarily works with delicate pottery, moulding intricate statuettes. There’s an underlying tension throughout Showing Up that her exhibition could metaphorically come crashing down at any moment. But the physicality of her pieces means this is often played for laughs – a basketball-playing student veers ever closer to her kiln-fired work, while a strange friendship with an injured pigeon adds another layer to the potential drama.
In fact, there’s a visual symbolism throughout Showing Up that reflects the film’s artistic nature. The quiet melancholy of Lizzie’s injured pigeon reflects her own predicament. She’s bound by expectation and will only feel herself when she’s finally set free. The trouble is nobody is in any rush to come to her aid. The heating in her apartment will get fixed… eventually. Her brother might turn up to her exhibition… eventually.
Lizzie lives in a perpetual state of “almost there” and it’s quietly disheartening. Throughout the film, you’ll find yourself rooting for her to rage against the dying of the light… but she’s not that kind of artist.
Showing Up is a wonderful vignette of a tortured soul, a watercolor that gives us a glimpse into the inner turmoil of an artist struggling to find her place. Reichardt paints with broad strokes at first, then pencils in the details with fine precision. A splash of color is added through the flaws and quirks of her friends and family, before finishing off this gorgeous work with artistic flair – a bold signature that makes this unmistakably a Reichardt. Showing Up has a lot to say about finding one’s place, and it’s in no rush to let it all out. But when it does, you’re shown a beautiful glimpse at a work that might just leave you breathless.
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