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Certain Women
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.