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Film Review

Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt is not a well known film director, but she consistently turns out some quiet gems. Films such as River of Grass (1994), Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek's Cutoff (2010) and Night Moves (2013) have all won a number of awards and critical praise despite flying largely under the popular radar. Reichardt both writes and directs. Her films usually take a sympathetic look at ordinary people trying to cope with life today, struggling with dogged persistence as best they can. Her pacing, like the lives depicted, tends to be slow. Character development and nature often take center stage; the stories tend to be quite poignant.

Her latest film, Certain Women, taken from short stories by Maile Meloy, looks closely at three women in three separate stories, unknown to each other, living in close proximity (close, that is, by Montana standards). All are capable, self reliant, yet sad and lonely. The first is Laura, an attorney (played by Laura Dern), dealing with a difficult, depressed and possibly dangerous client. Injured in a workplace accident, he has been unable to get the compensation that should be due. He has talked about wanting to end it all by killing people. Laura, sympathetic and possibly his only support, is nevertheless frightened by him. She understands that being a woman handicaps both of them. "If I were a man, people would listen to me", she laments.

The second story is Gina's, played by Michelle Williams, a wife who is determined to build a house in the woods, possibly in an subconscious effort to revive her marriage. She, her husband, and their sulky teenage daughter live in town, but frequently camp in a large tent on the site of the future house. Her husband, the more passive of the two, is having an affair. Gina wants to buy the sandstone remnants of an old schoolhouse, now owned by a neighbor. Their negotiations with their neighbor for the stone is well observed and lingers. The third story is, in many ways, the heart and heat of the film. In it, Jamie, a female ranch hand, becomes enchanted with a young inexperienced female attorney (played by Kristen Stewart). Jamie, as brilliantly played by Lily Gladstone, a Montana Blackfoot Tribe actress, is shy and awkward, with a hard job caring for horses at a large ranch. Her work is isolated and isolating; we never see another person on the ranch. With quiet competence she cares for her horses, up at dawn and to bed only after nightfall, seven days a week. One evening, Jamie follows some people into a school, and discovers a young female attorney teaching night classes on education law. She sits in and strikes up a friendship with the attorney. Jamie begins to develop a crush on the attorney, and her yearning to connect is powerful and poignant. Jamie's story is the strongest of the three and could well stand alone. Every minute of acting here is first rate, but Gladstone, an real unknown, runs away with the film.

Reichardt's cinematography is wonderful. Chris Blauvert, the same cinematographer she used for Meeks' Cutoff, which I consider a masterpiece, is equally outstanding here. Certain Women is set in the south central section of Montana, a handsome landscape of rolling hills, set against a backdrop of mountains and prairies that seem to go on forever. The film opens with a riveting panorama under a overcast sky. A freight train rolls in from the corner of the screen, filling it like a giant metal serpent. Many scenes are similarly breathtaking, as when Jamie opens the big barn door each morning to reveal a sweeping vista of sky and mountains. Her tasks with the horses- feeding and currying them, mucking out their stalls, trailed by her dog- have a stoic beauty as well. The scene of Jamie and her friend, riding double on Jamie's horse, is as sweet a scene as you will ever see onscreen. More than anything, Certain Women is a sensitive, humane film about loneliness and peoples' attempts to connect. I loved Certain Women and think it masterful. It will stay with you long after you leave the theater. Running time: 107 minutes. Playing at the Embarcadero, the Shattuck (Berkeley) and the Rafael Film Center.

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