Synopsis: The lives of three women intersect in small-town America, where each is imperfectly blazing a trail. (Source)
At a time when gender roles are highly politicized and superheroes have conquered big budget filmmaking, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women finds beauty and truth through the mundane. There’s no sensationalism here, nothing too extraordinary, just quiet, introspective snapshots that reveal the hidden strength behind four women. Reichardt’s anthology of intersecting stories allows the women at its center to just be, exhibiting their flaws, compassion, hopes and more. It’s a tremendous effort that shines a light on the importance of everyday lives, depicting what it’s like to have causal prejudice constantly leveled towards her characters, and the ways that they’re every bit as complex as their male counterparts. The performances anchoring the film are top notch as well, with Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart all showing how disparate and immense femininity can be, and that behind each person, is a story we may never know.
The film’s 3 short stories all take place against the backdrop of small-town Montana. First up is Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer who finds herself in a stagnant case with no real traction. She’s indulging a disgruntled man looking to sue his employer over a workplace injury, battling casual workplace sexism and a client who won’t take no for an answer. Elsewhere, Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), are trying to build a new home from the ground up, looking to buy sandstone from an acquaintance. Ryan unwittingly undermines her at every step, thinking that he’s helping, and there’s an unsaid tension between them that begins to expose itself. Making matters worse, Gina’s daughter can’t stand her mother. The final, and most heartbreaking of the triptych, centers around an unexpected connection. A ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) attends a night class about student rights. The teacher, is a recently graduated, rookie lawyer named Beth (Kristen Stewart), who commutes 4 hours to make ends meet. The two bond over after-class dinners, and a friendship ensues – but not the type that either of them are prepared for.
What makes Reichardt’s film so special, is how it celebrates the insular, uneventful worlds of her characters, each going through their own silent battle and finding strength only within themselves to cope. Though there’s an overarching plot to each act, the film’s power comes from exploring the repetition and rhythm of daily activities – moments which would’ve been excised from any other film. It’s here where her characters are alone, unguarded and left to themselves, but also at their most poignant and composed. They watch TV with the lights off, have meals quietly by themselves, brush lint off of their skirt, all the while quietly reflecting on the hardships around them. Reichardt lets each scene play out with understated grace, holding shots patiently and creating a moody tapestry of repression, but also resolve. “No one understands what my life has become”, utters one of the men in the film; it’s a profound statement, especially when contrasted with the singular lives these women lead, earning and paving their own way without having to call attention or over dramatize.
In light of the film’s minimalist, stripped-down approach, the performances breathe and soar. As Laura, Laura Dern is the most fun to watch. Her story packs in the most lighthearted moments as she rolls with the punches. Though she’s soft-spoken and has developed thick skin, she’s still full of warmth and compassion, giving her all to those in need. As Gina, Michelle Williams is the most deliberately distant. She’s a mother and wife, but you get the feeling that she’s really alone. Williams is heartbreaking and her performance is highly internalized. Lily Gladstone is the revelation here, as Jamie. She’s the blue-collar worker of the bunch, and in turn the most down to earth – her yearning and thirst for connection are raw, and she evokes so much with just a stray glance. What her character goes through is hard to watch, and she makes sure that we’re just as conflicted as Lily is. Finally, Kristen Stewart continues her hot steak with Beth. Stewart’s strength is in her ability to keep us guessing. She plays someone who is at a crossroads, weathered by her circumstance and really feeling things out. She’s also totally pragmatic and relatable. Together, all of these performances create women who refuse to be defined by their perceptions. They’re bigger than any single idea and refreshingly real.
The icing on the cake, is how every story in the film is connected, showing each woman as yet a blip in each other’s lives. There’s a a poetry to this that stings, and it’s a beautiful way of illustrating that just because these characters are a speck in the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t mean their stories are any less monumental. With Certain Women, Reichardt’s created a powerhouse of a film that speaks with deafening restraint and unmistakable poise.