Certain Women seems like an appropriate choice for International Women’s Day. Our expectations are buoyed by the stellar cast (and yes, I’m including Kristen Stewart in that; we can’t hold Twilight against her forever), and we are not disappointed. This quiet little film is a lovely, lovely thing.
There are three (largely) unrelated stories here, all set in the same Montana town. First up is Laura (Laura Dern), a stressed-out lawyer with an unhappy client. The hyper-realism of the film means that even the most dramatic moments are beautifully understated: there is no sensationalism, only humanity and warmth. There is nothing so simple as a baddy, just flawed people, doing the best they can – and carrying on when things go wrong. Dern excels as the overworked, harassed professional, berating herself for her failings, and always striving to do more. It’s compelling stuff.
The second tale is Gina’s. Michelle Williams plays the role with customary skill, imbuing the ambitious businesswoman with vulnerability as well as zeal. We know her solid-seeming relationship is flawed, because we’ve already seen her husband (James Le Gros) in the first story, leaving Laura’s bed, but again writer-director Kelly Reichardt eschews the cliched route, and nothing much is made of this. There’s no discovery, no showdown, no climactic denouement. Instead, we are shown the minutiae of their house-building project, the moral compromises they make to source some local stone. It sounds dull, but it isn’t. It’s a real slice of life, a perfect example of a (sandstone) fourth wall being gently lifted so that we can peek inside.
The third story is the best of the bunch, utterly heartbreaking in its simplicity. Kristen Stewart plays Beth, a newly qualified lawyer, who works for the same firm as Laura. In need of extra money, she’s conned into taking an evening job teaching school law in a town that’s a four-hour drive away – an unsustainable arrangement that leaves her exhausted. A lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone) chances on the class – “I just saw the people going in” – and begins to rely on her weekly trips to the diner with her teacher. Gladstone’s beatific smile when Beth rides with her on her horse is so touching it hurts. Her neediness is naked, and her disappointment inevitable. It’s all the more devastating because of the way the narrative confounds our expectations: we are movie literate; we know there’s supposed to be a last-minute knock-on-the-door or change of heart. But there isn’t, of course. Just sorrow for what might have been, and the resumption of routine.
This is a wonderful film, full of sympathy and heart.