I just knew that if I didn't start driving, I'd never see you again.

I just knew that if I didn’t start driving, I’d never see you again.

 

Everyday life comes with a lot of drama simmering just below the surface.

It’s not always easy to identify from moment to moment, but quite often the people we work with, live with, or just happen to pass on the street are dealing with issues that sap their energy and emotion. They might not wear their problems on their sleeve, but it doesn’t mean these problems don’t loom large.

In the eyes of these people – people most of us would recognize in our own lives – these situations are weighty and worrisome. They are the sort of situations worthy of ballads or prose poems. Pity that few people write ballads or prose poems about such situations, but lucky that one of those people is Kelly Reichardt.

CERTAIN WOMEN tells three short stories set in rural Wyoming, the three of them overlapping in the slightest.

First we meet Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer who has a troublesome client named Fuller (Jared Harris). Fuller was injured on the job some time ago and has been consuming Laura’s time and energy in his quest for compensation. He taxes her patience and her professionalism as he constantly tries to hang his demons on her. Eventually, he takes drastic actions, and drags her into harm’s way with him.

Throughout the attorney/client relationship, Laura wonders how much easier things with Fuller would be if she was a man.

Then we meet Gina (Michelle Williams). Gina is camping near the site of her future house with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and their daughter Guthrie. Ryan is actually first introduced earlier in the film in the midst of an extramarital affair, and how much about that Gina knows is unclear. What is clear is that Gina and Guthrie have reached a point where the mother wants the child to be present and the child wants the mother to butt-out. Guthrie’s closer attachment to Ryan is likewise something of a sore spot for Gina, especially since Gina is the breadwinner in the family.

We watch and listen as Gina an Ryan approach a local hermit about a business proposition.

Finally, we meet a rancher named Jamie (Lily Gladstone). She works hard tending to horses and stables during the day, though she often seems surrounded by boredom. One night, she wanders into a high school where night classes are taking place and takes a seat inside a classroom. The course is dedicated to school law, and is being taught by a young lawyer named Beth (Kristen Stewart).

As the class ends, Jamie offers to show Beth where to get a bite to eat. As the two women share a table we listen next to Jamie as Beth does most of the talking. The job that has brought her into Jamie’s orbit requires her making a four hour drive each way (on a work night). Beth seems to be owning it as one more bit of professional dues to be paid, and admits that even driving for eight hours once a week beats selling shoes for a living.

Jamie can only smile and nod, happy that she has such interesting company to look forward to once a week. The two women share a curious companionship, that eventually must be addressed directly.

 

Lily Gladstone in CERTAIN WOMEN

 

CERTAIN WOMEN is a movie dedicated to the increasing weight of seemingly light frustrations. Seldom, for instance, do we see a film articulate how a mother can feel as though her child sees a father as “the good guy” and them as “the bad guy”. Or likewise, have a stranger mistake the power dynamic of a partnership, and assume that the male in the duo must be “in charge”. The characters that we meet in this movie all face these challenges daily, just as so many in our world do. How long until these little challenges begin to feel like big challenges?

Having all of these stories and the obstacles they present play out beneath the backdrop of the Wyoming horizon is especially poetic. Often when the characters move to and fro, we see just how dwarfed they become by the mountains in the distance, or the wide rivers that rush by, or even the heavy tree canopy above. It’s a beautiful metaphor both for how large some of these life moments can seem, and likewise how small we can sometimes feel in the face of them.

It seems like of all three stories, the tale of Beth Travis and Jamie stands out most. There is something truly sad about a person who wanders into a night school class about school law because she has nothing better to do. While the experience will eventually be fuelled by an interest/attraction, that’s not what draws Jamie into that school that night. She is living an honest-if-unspectacular life, and can’t think of anything better to do with her weeknight than to see what the group of grown-ups are doing in the classroom.

Life doesn’t have to be filled with lavish parties or great adventures…but it has to come with more than that. How dies one look at an action like that and not feel truly saddened?

And yet, the sadness continues, because we watch her take a growing fascination to Beth and fear that the interest is not fully returned. Jamie’s feelings might be romantic, or might be platonic, but either way, we can see on her face the light that this random lawyer-turned-teacher brings to her week. She brings enough to make a boring class about an unrelated subject a “must-attend”…and a night of sitting in a truck stop drinking only water like a fine dining experience.

Were these moments but a few of many, we could carry on. However, watching the way Lily Gladstone’s face lights up around Kristen Stewart, we can clearly tell that these moments are the highlight of her week…and there’s something truly melancholy about that.

The films of Kelly Reichardt remind us that small stories can come with great drama. People in small communities are sorting through just as much chaos and desire as the people in New York or London, but their stories aren’t often seen as sexy enough to be portrayed on a big screen. That’s a real pity, since two hours’ in the audience of a Reichardt film can truly illuminate just how indelible certain moments will be in the lives of certain people.

Just as some people are forever changed by the day a bomb went off, others are forever changed by that time that person looked at them with sadness and said nothing.

 

 

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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