CERTAIN WOMEN (Movie Review)

***1/2 out of ****
Rated R

(for some language and sexual themes)
Released: October 14, 2016
 limited; November 4 wider
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring:  Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone, Jared Harris, James Le Gros

Beautiful, yet baron and cold.

The vistas of the American West reflect that dichotomy (and melancholy) in director Kelly Reichardt’s latest installment of indie minimalism. They also serve as visual metaphors to the interior landscapes of three Montana women (well four, actually). Each one searches for warmth in her relationships, whether personal or professional, but remain stuck in a perpetual winter.

Based on short stories by writer Maile Meloy, Certain Women is a triptych of separate tales, about a half-hour each, that are set in the same community but never intersect (save for one unexplored connection between the first two; yes, that’s the same guy). They examine women at various stages of adult life who share a similar angst: the longing to be valued for who they are, instead of being taken for granted. Their isolation is real, and if victories come they’re small, even momentary – but that’s also what makes them meaningful.

These are random “slice of life” stories, and small slices at that. Laura Dern is a lawyer burdened with an impossibly frustrating client (Jared Harris), Michelle Williams is a wife who’s not respected by her husband or the seller of sandstone she’d like to use for a housing build, while Kristen Stewart is a would-be lawyer teaching adjunct small town night classes who doesn’t know how to broker the budding affections of a shy female Native American student.

Collectively, Certain Women is a movie that functions like three one act plays united by a thematic (and geographic) bond. It leaves you feeling as if you’ve spent time reading select works from a lost, more humanistic Flannery O’Connor collection. As a piece of slow-burn cinema, its virtues are intimate and literary, dramatizing the cause of each woman’s psychological frustrations rather than authoring them through first-person prose.

Laura Wells and Gina Lewis (Dern and Williams) are two smart, sophisticated, even formidable women that are dismissed by men simply because of their gender. The rural culture seems to compound the issue. These ladies aren’t victims of blatant misogyny, mind you, but rather an utterly clueless sexism.

Men don’t hate women in these two vignettes, or even hold a conscious prejudice. Indeed, it’s their lack of overt condescension that makes the problem harder for Laura and Gina to pinpoint, articulate, and confront. Men and women don’t make sense to each other here, but not in a Mars vs. Venus clichéd sort of way. For Laura and Gina, it’s a deeper, unspoken, existential disconnect.

In the third story, star Kristen Stewart ends up playing supporting catalyst to newcomer Lily Gladstone’s inhibited lesbian. Living in rural Montana, Gladstone’s Jamie has likely never had an opportunity to pursue a romance (especially as a Native American, growing up in a cultural subset of this small population pond).

She begins to test the waters with Stewart’s Beth, a teacher of law at adult night classes, and does so with equal parts apprehension and excitement. Beth reciprocates friendship but, as that grows, Jamie struggles – awkwardly at times – to see if Beth’s feelings are more than platonic. Jamie is uncertain of how to read Beth, or of how to openly express herself.

As with her previous films (including collaborations with Michelle Williams, most notably the heartbreaking Wendy & Lucy), Reichardt gravitates to people who find themselves marginalized. She doesn’t contrive predictable arcs for her characters, or provide closure for their journeys. Here, Reichardt enters and exits these women’s stories while they are still in process, taking in-depth peaks at formative moments.

Reichardt’s approach is patient, observational, and delicate. She explores her stories against a backdrop of striking visuals that, at times, evoke great American painters like Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Albert Bierstadt. The result is poignant and satisfying, but not in the conventional sense. Instead, with the full emotional investment of top tier talents like Dern, Williams, and Stewart – plus Gladstone’s raw vulnerability (she’s a real discovery) – Reichardt allows us to see, hear, and understand these women in ways their own worlds do not.

There is no grand statement being made through these stories, no “point” per se. Certain Women is simply, but tenderly, expressing empathy toward four women who are in desperate need of some – and to the countless women who’ll undoubtedly identify with them.

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