Certain Women (2016)
Written & Directed by Kelly Reichardt
I was drawn the short story form in college. I think what excited me about this mode of storytelling was the urgency of the moment and way this specific event reveals a profound depth to a character. Authors I enjoyed when first discovering the short story were Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Steven Millhauser, among others. Today I still get no better satisfaction than from a well crafted short story collection, leaning more into fantastical writers of horror and magic-realism. However, if the stories don’t center on character, then they lose any potential magic. Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt loved the short stories of writer Maile Meloy and has taken three of them to weave into a meditation on a variety of women in complicated situations.
Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Lily Gladstone are three central figures, each struggling to navigate complex relationships, trying to assert themselves yet attempting to have empathy and acceptance of others who may not make that an easy task. Dern plays Laura Wells, a lawyer in a small Montana town who has been going back and forth with a client for over a year. The client, Fuller, was injured on the job and now has permanent brain trauma. He quickly settled with his employer, but a year later, Fuller’s condition is not improved, and he wants to sue for more money. Wells has sincere sympathy for Fuller, she learns how his former employer screwed him over in the deal, but she also has duties as a lawyer to fulfill.
Michelle Williams plays Gina, a woman working on building a home with her husband, Ryan. They drag their sullen teenage daughter along on weekend trips to the property as they stake out the dimensions of the house and look towards laying a foundation. They have come across a pile of sandstone in their future neighbor Albert’s yard. Albert appears to be experiencing at least the early stages of dementia when Gina and Ryan visit. She keeps engaging Albert in conversation about how much he wants for the stone, Albert mostly ignores her and only talks to Ryan, weaving in and out of fragmented discussions on building his house, his past performing in a band, etc.
The final story, and in my opinion, the best, spotlights newcomer Lily Gladstone as ranch hand Jamie who is working through the isolation of the winter season. She spends her days feeding and caring for the horses and eating her meals in solitude. Spotting cars pulling into the school parking lot one evening Jamie follows out of curiosity. This leads to Jamie sitting in on an adult education class on school law taught by Beth, a young lawyer. Jamie eventually asks Beth out for some coffee and a bite at a nearby diner, and over the course of many evenings, they become close. Jamie is gay or bi and is attracted to Beth, who is subtly returning the attraction. However, distance plays a tough roll in this story that will resonate with those of us who have had to struggle with a long distance relationship.
Certain Women is a quiet film that makes it point in a measured, crafted way. There are no tremendous emotional outbursts or expository eruptions that put a pin on the thematic points. Reichardt is comfortable leaving characters on ambiguous notes, much like the short stories that inspired this film. She wants these characters to feel organic, living lives before we peek in on what’s going on, and then when the moment has passed, the audience must leave. The three women at the center of this film will keep living, and we are left wonder what sort of lives those might be like.