Certain Women (Review)

I mentioned in my Personal Shopper review I wanted to review Kristen Stewart’s second film this year, and so here it is.

I’m afraid to admit that Certain Women is the first Kelly Reichardt film I’ve seen, but I’ve got a hunger to see more. It’s clear, just in the way she treats the subtly connected three short stories that make up this film, that she’s got the unwavering eye for reality necessary to do intimate stories justice, the kind of stories where their success is at the mercy of their characters, and whether or not they resonate.

Laura Dern plays Laura, a lawyer trapped in a stagnant life, made all the worse by the guilt she carries in sleeping with a married man. We only catch a glimpse of the man, but he’s one who seems not actively malicious – maybe just apathetic. We follow Laura through her day, a day that could either be an important milestone in her life and career, or just another day. Based on the way she acts it seems as though, if this hasn’t happened before, she’s suspected something like it would happen for a while, and that attitude aids her throughout. She’s weathered by her town’s blunt sexism and oppressively sleepy existence. One of Laura’s clients, an older, troubled man named Fuller, drags her into more difficulty than he’s worth.

With little warning, Reichardt transitions to the second short story set in the town – a story that is not the smallest and yet is least affecting. Gina (Michelle Williams) drives out to the country with her husband – the married man Laura sleeps with – and their teenager daughter to camp and then stop to acquire some stone from a man they know only vaguely.

If I can take a brief break from this parade of praise, I feel compelled to point out that this daughter is the only character who seems to lack the depth to become three-dimensional. She resorts to rude quips and remarks, and she shows no respect for her parents. I’ve known some snotty teenagers, but never were they so squarely pro-phone, anti-parents. Maybe I was lucky. What this teenager does give us is another shade of the cheating husband. It’s easy to write him off, but when Gina gets out of the car in a huff, sick of her daughter’s insolent behaviour, the husband stays behind to try and remedy the situation; pull their daughter out of her shell. She refuses, but he tries. That’s something. Not only that, when he finally leaves to meet Gina, Gina accuses him of always angling to be the good guy. He might not be a good guy, but this scene completely throws him into a gray I didn’t expect, and it affords him the time most writers don’t afford cheating spouses. The depth that didn’t go to the daughter went to the husband, and maybe overall I’m thankful for it.

Now, back to the parade. This short is steeped in tension, and it transforms its rather mundane events into tests. Every exchange is chock-full of subtext. In another example of the town’s sexism, when Gina and her husband speak to the man about his stone, he only responds to the husband. It’s a frustrating existence, and that frustration seeps into every other aspect of these characters’ lives.

From here we transition yet again to what I believe is Certain Women’s most intimate, felt section. Jamie (Lily Gladstone) lives a seemingly solitary life on a ranch. She cares deeply for her animals. Reichardt smartly affords us generous time to spend watching Jamie alone, giving us insights into the character that we wouldn’t normally. The benefit of this time comes in seeing the way Jamie treats her animals. She treats them very similarly to the people around her: with mystery, love, and care. It seems obvious to treat someone this way, but it’s good to get a reminder, especially after the two previous shorts where we witness men (and women) short change other women.

Every week, Jamie attends a class on school law. Beth (Kristen Stewart – you thought I forgot her) teaches this class. From the first moment, Jamie’s enamoured, but Beth’s too focused on the trouble her other students (adults at least 20 years her senior) give her to notice. Here begins a strong unrequited love that builds very slowly and escapes without much Hollywood artifice.

Reichardt brings to life these short stories in a way that truly evokes a sense of laboured, deep fiction rather than an efficient, straightforward screenplay, and that’s a tough feat.

I won’t watch Certain Women often, but that’s because it’s heavy with reality and overdoing it would only cheapen the experience.

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