CERTAIN WOMEN screened as a part of the Premieres category at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. For more information, head here.
“She’s good at highlighting the unspoken and invisible.”
Kristen Stewart said this about Kelly Reichardt’s filmmaking style at the Q&A of Certain Women and it couldn’t be more on point. “Highlight” almost feels like too strong a word; what Reichardt prefers to do is lay everything out—natural and unfussed—and we observe it as if peeking through a stranger’s window.
Certain Women “peeks” into the lives of three women: a lawyer named Laura (Laura Dern), a woman named Gina (Michelle Williams), and a rancher (Lily Gladstone). Laura is struggling to help a client understand the situation of his current legal battle and it leads to a tense situation. Gina is planning on building her dream house, but first she needs to convince her elderly neighbour to part with the old sandstone on his property. The rancher works alone all day and strikes up a strange friendship with a teacher (Kristen Stewart).
All of that might sound incredibly dull to some—where’s the action, where’s the drama, where’s the crazy climax??—but what a typed description doesn’t capture is the subtle yet incredibly powerful performances from Dern, Williams, Gladstone, and Stewart. No backstories are ever given, so we learn everything about these women from their actions, from what they say, from what they don’t say, their looks, their sighs, their posture. The fact that we are able to know these characters so intimately without really knowing anything about them or without witnessing big moments in their lives is a testament to the actresses’ abilities as well as Reichardt’s talent as a writer and director.
Like the story and acting, the rest of the film is sparse. There’s almost no music and the cinematography beautifully captures Montana in all of its big-skies, small-town glory. The story doesn’t move along at its own pace, but rather at the pace of the characters whose lives we are momentarily observing. And it is quietly breathtaking.
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.