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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

2016 Sundance Film Festival
Certain Women  (2016)
3½ Stars
Directed by Kelly Reichardt.
Cast: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart, James Le Gros, Jared Harris, Rene Auberjonois, John Getz, Sara Rodier, Ashlie Atkinson, James Jordan, Matt McTighe, Marceline Hugot.
2016 – 107 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language).
Reviewed at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by Dustin Putman for, January 25, 2016.
Patient, pure and honest without fail, "Certain Women" is a quietly breathtaking snapshot of people either struggling, or learning, to make human connections in a world where everyone is unsuspectingly intertwined. For editor-writer-director Kelly Reichardt (2014's "Night Moves"), this is a natural extension of her past work, a sumptuously quilted tapestry of perfectly imperfect lives in motion. Based on Maile Meloy's short story collections "Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It" and "Half in Love," the film picks up with its Montana-based characters, lingers on them without judgment for a short while, and then leaves them to go on to a new day. Without adhering to storytelling conventions, "Certain Women" earns a quiet poignancy that only grows in hindsight. This is the beauty of Reichardt's work, and why she is one of the clearest, most individualistic voices of independent cinema.

It is no surprise this project has been adapted from short-form literary stories, for this is exactly how it feels. In the first, Laura Dern (2014's "Wild") stars as Laura Wells, a lawyer embroiled in a standoff when one of her clients—the frustrated Mr. Fuller (Jared Harris), injured at his job but, due to a binding past legal agreement, unable to sue his employer for work negligence—takes a security guard hostage. In the second, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) is prepping to build a second home in the country for herself, husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and moody teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). Looking for material to use, she and Ryan visit an elderly family friend, Albert (Rene Auberjonois), in hopes of convincing him to sell them a pile of limestone that has been sitting on his property for fifty years. In the final story, a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) becomes enamored with Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), an overworked law school graduate roped into teaching a night school class four hours away from her home.

At no point during "Certain Women" is it apparent where things are going. This is one of the many appealing qualities of a motion picture that plays by its own rules at its own special rhythm. By closely observing her characters moment to moment without the pressure of moving a mainstream plot forward, Reichardt makes them dynamic and real. She is aided immeasurably, of course, by her exquisite cast. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams (reuniting with Reichardt following 2008's "Wendy and Lucy" and 2011's "Meek's Cutoff"), Kristen Stewart (2015's "The Clouds of Sils Maria"), Jared Harris (2015's "Poltergeist"), Rene Auberjonois (2004's "Eulogy") and newcomer Lily Gladstone turn in subtly powerful work, expressive in their internalizations.

Taking advantage of locations in and around Livingston, Montana, cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (2013's "The Bling Ring") lenses with a rustic, homey, open-spaced intimacy. It is always a treat to see stories set in places which haven't been overused in film, and the midwest towns and open vistas of this picture prove immersive because of their lived-in singularity. A hand wave left unreciprocated. The seemingly endless silence wafting in the air between two people who have misread each other's signals. An incarcerated man's vulnerable plea for a pen pal, and the professional who suddenly realizes tiny gestures sometimes mean more than big ones. "Certain Women" is a lovely slice-of-life of small yet enduring moments, none of them manufactured.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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