by Rob DiCristino
Showing Up (Dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Every now and again, the quiet chaos of Kelly Reichardt’s crunchy, flannel-clad Showing Up stops so that Lizzy (Michelle Williams) can practice her art. She futzes delicately with tabletop sculptures, lopsided figures that are often missing limbs or detailed features. Reichardt lets Lizzy work in long takes, static close-ups that convey the single-minded focus necessary to create something unique and significant — something that could change her life. Lizzy is plenty busy these days — working a day job in an office, looking out for her eccentric father (Judd Hirsch) and agoraphobic brother (John Magaro), and negotiating with her landlady (Hong Chau, quickly becoming a familiar face after excellent turns in last year’s The Menu and The Whale) over hot water heater repair — but she makes the most of those spare minutes of diligent artistic focus. Showing Up is about that process, about the long swaths of time between creative revelations that force us to debate whether the juice is really ever worth the squeeze.First Cow — will feel right at home with Showing Up’s leisurely pace and scattered dips in and out of narrative. Plotting has never been Reichardt’s strength or interest; her storytelling is more observational, a series of happenstances and chance encounters that highlight the tedium of everyday life. There’s magic in that mundanity, though, like when Lizzy nurses an injured bird back to health or sees her brother through an artistic epiphany of his own. Michelle Williams murmurs her way through an anxious and delicate performance that stands in sharp contrast to her wild, ostentatious turn in last year’s The Fabelmans, hopefully setting any debate about her acting chops to rest. Hong Chau makes for a perfect foil; her Jo is a multi-hyphenate artist like Lizzy, but there’s an easy aloofness to her approach that affords her a bit more recognition from the local intelligentsia, while Lizzy grinds assiduously on the sidelines hoping for a breakthrough.
You’ll know early on if Showing Up is for you, whether or not — to mix a metaphor — you have the stomach for all the navel-gazing. Those who do will find a worthy exploration of what David Lynch refers to as The Art Life, the application of steady creative pressure over geological ages that, if we’re lucky, produces something extraordinary. Reichardt manages to be sympathetic to that process while also foregrounding the loneliness of the blank canvas, the gaps in our personal lives that grow into chasms if we don’t temper and regulate our attentions appropriately. Lizzy wants notoriety — well, she wants a hot shower and then notoriety — but she’s not quite worthy of it yet, at least not in her mind. She’s still that ceramic figure whose arms won’t stay attached, that wounded bird too weak to fly on its own. Her journey isn’t exactly a barn-burner, but it’s a decent insight into how much time and energy artists devote to doubt, the self-flagellation we endure just to speak with voices all our own.
Showing Up is in select theaters now.
Beau is Afraid (Dir. Ari Aster)Midsommar), who returns to the big screen with an early contender for the year’s wildest, most ambitious dark comedy. On its surface, Beau is Afraid is the simple story of an ineffectual middle-aged man (Joaquin Phoenix as Beau) who, after the sudden death of his mother (Patti LuPone as Mona), makes his way home to attend her funeral. Sounds simple enough for most of us, but it’s a nigh-Herculean task for Beau, whose apartment is wedged within a jagged, urban hellscape of his overbearing mother’s worst apprehensions: Curbside stabbings are common, brown recluse spiders roam with impunity, and anxiety medication is lethal if not immediately chased with a glass of water. It takes most of the film’s first hour — the first of three, so buckle up — just to get Beau across the street, and even that small feat comes with a healthy dose of police brutality, vehicular manslaughter, and a terrifying mob of angry hobos.
Aster isn’t showing us the real world, of course, but rather the debilitating prison that Beau’s neuroses have constructed around him. Each of the film’s four major acts — including Beau’s adoption by a mawkish suburban family (Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, and Kylie Rogers) who use prescription drugs to mask deep psychological damage — explores a different corner of Beau’s broken psyche, wounds wrought upon him by a mother who never found her son sufficiently appreciative of his own birth. Aster is clearly no stranger to maternal guilt trips — Beau delaying his flight home in order to recover his stolen keys is tantamount to treason — or the psychosexual circus of young love — teenaged Elaine (Julia Antonelli) asks Beau to “wait” for her, which he does at the expense of four decades of testicular engorgement — and he seems to revel in pushing his feeble protagonist through a nightmarish odyssey that imagines what we’d get if the Coen brothers covered Clive Barker or David Cronenberg remixed Charlie Kaufman.
Beau is Afraid will disappoint horror fans looking for the next Hereditary or Midsommar, but audiences with the constitution to endure 180 minutes of headless corpses, perverse graffiti, and anthropomorphized genitalia will delight in the deeper terrors of Freudian guilt and Oedipal shame, each one writ large in the most stunningly dramatic — literally, in the case of a middle chapter that stages Beau’s “What-If?” life as a kitschy school play — possible terms. Aster isn’t interested in subtlety or nuance here, nor should he be: These are childish emotions scrawled out in bright Crayola, and Beau’s helplessness to overcome them boils into a primal scream that is as blunt and clumsy as it is heartbreaking and hilarious. Beau is Afraid is an uncompromising flex of auteur muscle from an artist now in full, unabashed control of his power. Phoenix was born to play this flop-sweated weirdo, and Aster ices his already imposing cake with two of the best late-game cameos in recent memory. Beau is a lot, but it’s well worth the trip.
Beau is Afraid hits theaters on April 21st.