Not quite an anthology and not quite a “vignette” film, writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s patient, thoughtful “Certain Women” provides a glimpse into the mundane lives of three hardworking, ordinary women as they demand respect from those around them, try to make their mark on the world and seek out meaningful connections. For the most part, the picture is divided into three segments, each one focusing on a different woman (sort of like a short film) and then during the final fifteen or twenty minutes, Reichardt briefly revisits each woman. While all three stories could easily be expanded into their own absorbing film, together they create a fascinating and varied portrait of women in small-town America.
The brilliance of “Certain Women” lies in Reichardt’s quiet and restrained approach-- an approach that puts all of the focus on character instead of plot and doesn’t talk down to the audience. The film is as understated as they come; Reichardt doesn’t spoon feed or over explain. A lot of the film’s substance is kept bellow the surface, implied through a facial gesture or a seemingly straightforward line of dialogue. While not confusing or intricate in terms of plot (in fact there’s not much in the way of plot), “Certain Women” still requires your undivided attention, as it’s a film about subtle gestures and observation.
The first segment focuses on Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a small town lawyer. One of Laura’s clients, Fuller (Jared Harris, pathetic and heartbreaking. This might be his most tender, soulful performance) has been trying to sue his former employer for workers comp but is unable, making him mentally unstable and increasingly needy. This chapter is characterized by quiet frustration and guilt. You sense that Laura is dissatisfied with the way her career has been going thus far and feels like she isn’t being taken seriously. Fuller insists on meeting with another lawyer (a male lawyer) to tell him what she has been telling him for months. There are times when Laura herself looks like she’s going to snap, at having to deal with such a needy, frustrating person. However, she also feels a sense of pity and guilt—guilt over the fact that she can’t do more to help.
The second segment revolves around Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), who’s currently in the process of building a house on a patch of land she purchased, along with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and angsty teen daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). This is probably the least compelling section in the entire film. Although Gina’s determination to get the house built and the underlying tension between her and her family is intriguing, the segment ultimately feels incomplete. The other two stories, as understated as they are, still have a sense of dramatic momentum and build to a satisfying conclusion. On the other hand, this story feels somewhat flat and anticlimactic.
And then there’s the final story, which is not only the best but also one that would make a great solo short film. It’s a tender, moving meditation on alienation and the distances we travel (literally and figuratively) to find and maintain meaningful connections with other people. An awkward and lonely horse ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) stumbles into a night school class taught by Beth Travis (Kristin Stewart), a young overworked lawyer. The two eat dinner afterwards at a nearby diner and Jamie develops an attachment towards Beth (whether Jamie’s attachment is plutonic or romantic is left up to you to decide) and keeps coming back to the class. The post class meals become the highlight of her day— giving her something to look forward to other than work.
As someone who’s also shy and often seeks isolation, this story resonated the most. Though I enjoy my alone time, I also greatly look forward to the meetings and interactions with my few companions. Even introverts need connections with other humans once in a while. Hell, we even treasure some of them. Throughout the day, I think Jamie is happy and content to take care of horses in isolation, but when she gets to see Beth, she’s ecstatic. During one night, the look of utter joy on her face as she silently gives Beth a ride on her horse to the diner is beautiful. Of all three stories, this one hit home and held me the entire way through, building to a bittersweet conclusion.
Gladstone is simply superb in the role. In fact all three lead actresses give impressively understated performances, performances that rely almost exclusively on subtle facial gestures and body language rather than lengthy monologues or dialogue heavy interactions.
“Certain Women” won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; some will find it to be too slow or take issue with the film’s lack of plot. It’s not an easy film to watch, as it requires a lot of work on the part of the audience. But for those who are patient enough, Reichardt’s picture has plenty to like.