There is something inescapably Portlandia about Showing Up. To be fair, it does take place in (unnamed) Portland at the (unnamed) Oregon College of Art and Craft (a real institution that has sadly since closed). An early scene has frustrated sculptor Lizzy (Michelle Williams) confronting her landlord/neighbor/artistic rival/frenemy Jo (Hong Chau) about her still-broken water heater. Lizzy blurts out in anger, “I have a show, you know!” Jo immediately counters, “I have two shows, which is insane…” The fact that Jo is languidly swinging on a tire swing that she just has just casually strung up made me giggle even more, imagining what Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s twist on the same scene would look like.
With that as an intro, I couldn’t quite tell if director Kelly Reichardt was laughing at these artists, or with them. The tone triggered my days of going to a hippie college, where it wouldn’t be at all unusual to sit eating your lunch and wonder if those smiling, spinning young people out in the field were getting credit (yes, the class is “Thinking and Movement,” a character explains). But as the film goes on, I found myself first snickering, then totally getting into what these folks were doing with their sculpture, weaving, painting, and more.
The central plot of the film is simple: Can Lizzy get her sculptures done in time for her show? And if so, will people show up? Lizzy pays her bills by working in the office at OCAC, where she steps over a sleeping dog to come into the building, and has to ask her mother (Maryann Plunkett) if she can take a day off to finish her sculptures (because, well, her mom works there, too). There’s also an injured pigeon, a talkative cat, a “genius” brother who can’t seem to get his shit together (but always gets away with everything), her flakey dad (Judd Hirsh) who has freeloaders sleeping on his couch, and… then there’s the art.
I found myself really enjoying Reichardt’s deliberate, quiet portrayal of artists creating their art. We get to hang out with Lizzy as she contemplates one of her marvelous sculptures of the female form. She pauses, breaks off the figure’s arm, re-glues it at a different angle, then crooks the hand just so. Just like that, the look of the sculpture is different, more playful.
It’s fun to see three recently-Oscar-nominated actors in completely different performances. Michelle Williams and Judd Hirsch were previously in The Fabelmans (a film I did not care for), and they are both marvelous in this. Hong Chau (nominated for her role in The Whale), who should be on anyone’s MVP list these days, is hilarious as the talented artist to whom things seem to come a little more easily.
But the star of the film is the act of creating. As much as you want to snicker at the small world that these creative types swirl in, you equally want to get your hands on a loom, or in some clay, or simply spin in a field. Or maybe it’s just the act of slowing down–whether it is looking up at birds in the trees, or looking down and imagining a hole as a sculpture–slowing down is something we should all make more room for in our daily lives.