by Diana Schnelle
Kelly Reichardt, USA
In this strikingly subdued film, director and screenwriter Reichardt has created a gem that captures the longings, frustrations, and misunderstandings that shape the lives of a handful of women living in a small town in Montana. It’s not particularly important that the women live in the same town as their lives only overlap in minor ways across three loosely connected stories, but the wide-open, still spaces of Montana certainly play a role in setting the quiet, slow pace of the movie. And this is most definitely a quiet film, one that’s likely too quiet for many viewers. Watching CERTAIN WOMEN feels like the visual equivalent of reading poetry on a drowsy afternoon, and leads to quiet rumination and reflection on lives that are simply led or even ‘ordinary’– in the sense that they are not spectacular or out of the ordinary.
The actors in the movie, however, are
spectacular. Reichardt has assembled a knockout cast that’s divided up across the three separate stories. In the first – and by far most action-packed – part of the triptych, Laura Dern plays a lawyer (also named Laura). Her client Will (Jared Harris), an injured construction worker who refuses to accept her repeated assurances that he’s not entitled to more worker’s compensation, continues to show up at her law practice, mostly, it seems, out of loneliness. She takes him to visit a male lawyer who tells him the same thing she’s been saying, and Laura’s exasperation when her client unquestioningly believes her male colleague will be recognizable to any woman who’s ever faced (overt or unintentional) sexism. Laura remains unexpectedly entangled with Will, as he becomes increasing desperate, and Dern sensitively balances Laura’s sympathy towards him with her frustration at the absurdity of the circumstances.
The film shifts to a second narrative focused on Gina (Michelle Williams), who, with her husband (James Le Gros), is building her dream house. The site where they’re building is idyllic, but their marriage is revealed to be on shaky ground. (It’s almost an irrelevant detail shown in passing that the husband is having an affair with Laura, the lawyer in the first story.) It’s a pleasure to watch Williams – who has appeared in previous films by Reichardt – but this story feels the thinnest of the three, and, although it’s enjoyable to watch, it isn’t mind-blowing.
So what a delightful surprise when the third story turns out to be a slow-burning masterpiece of intense and soulful longing featuring two fantastic actresses. Lily Gladstone, a newcomer who will be well known after this movie, plays Jamie, a young ranch hand working in lonely isolation in rural Montana. Jamie goes about her repetitive chores mostly silently until, seemingly on a whim, she drops in on an evening class for teachers taught by a young lawyer, Beth (the exceptional Kristen Stewart). Jamie has no business being there, but she keeps attending the classes and strikes up a sort of friendship with Beth, who mostly seems self-involved and self-pitying, as well as exhausted from juggling this job (and its ridiculous four-hour commute) with her full-time job. But Jamie is smitten, and although she says very little, Gladstone’s amazingly expressive face conveys Jamie’s mournful but intense infatuation so convincingly that it almost feels voyeuristic to watch so much being communicated with so few words. (Watching Gladstone is such a joy that it’s worth seeing the movie for her alone.) The interest clearly seems one-sided, yet Jamie pursues a connection with Beth with touching persistence, impulsively driving through the night to see her one last time when Beth moves on from her night job. Finishing on a somber note, this story is a beautifully acted and gloriously realized piece of melancholic storytelling that functions as a self-contained short film.
CERTAIN WOMEN is certainly not a unanimous crowd pleaser! Despite winning the Best Film Award at the BFI London Film Festival
in October, the film focuses on such “small,” everyday situations that some may see it as banal or too unresolved to be satisfying. Reichardt based her script on Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It
, a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy, a writer raised in Montana. Reichardt retains the brevity of short stories with her three-vignette format, but infuses the film with enough power to disavow anyone of the idea that short is the same as slight. CERTAIN WOMEN’s lasting impact is intrinsically linked to how restrained and open-ended it is: life is often banal and frustrating, and rarely are there Hollywood endings, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.