Short stories often suit feature film adaptation better than novels. In ‘Certain Women’, the perpetually underrated Kelly Reichardt (‘Wendy and Lucy’, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’) takes three achingly small and human short stories by Maile Meloy and weaves them together into a single feature that honors the voices of both the original author and the filmmaker.
Laura Dern stars in the first of the three stories, playing a small town lawyer working for a client (Jared Harris) who wants disability compensation from his former employer, but doesn’t realize that he’s ineligible because he already took money from them (even though the sum was insubstantial). She struggles to explain that fact and he refuses to listen until she finds a male colleague who will say the same thing.
The second story features Michelle Williams as a young woman living on a camp site next to a house being built for her family. She and her husband (James LeGros) stop by an elderly neighbor’s home to buy a pile of sandstone for their house and Williams becomes increasingly frustrated when the old man will only talk to her husband.
Both stories obviously share a similar theme of casual misogyny, but Reichardt doesn’t lean too hard on messaging. Her film is more about the quiet moments between the big dramas. Shot in somber brown tones and long camera setups that seem to capture life as it passes through, the director creates a film mostly about mood, feeling and realism. The world feels richly lived-in, and despite the movie star faces, is devoid of glamor. It’s painfully real and beautifully observed. The indignities that her protagonists face are met with only annoyance or acceptance. This isn’t about strong women triumphing over adversity, but about little battles they quietly lose or accept. It’s harsh but powerful, and so well observed and passionately performed by the cast (especially Dern and Williams) that it feels like the lives of the characters will go on long after the stories end. These are moments they’ll remember and that shape them, devoid of the melodramatics that usually pass for realism in most mainstream storytelling.
The third story in this triptych is both the smallest and the highlight. Newcomer Lily Gladstone plays a ranch hand living on her own in a small farm. She’s not presented as a lonely loser or anything of the sort. She has merely accepted a quiet existence and feels separate from the world around her for reasons not entirely clear at first. Her life briefly breaks from the routine when she attends a local law class taught by Kristen Stewart. Gladstone becomes infatuated by the teacher, and over low-key diner dates they bond in quietly profound ways (well, at least for one of them). It’s clear that Gladstone feels emotions she’s never felt before but can’t express them. The story is filled with heartache and potency, in the smallest and most unspoken of ways. It’s remarkably well-crafted and delicately observed, finding extraordinary emotional resonance in the moments that would typically be tossed off in other films. Gladstone is absolutely incredible in the role and Stewart provides the type of gentle character work that she’s proven to be quite gifted at following her ‘Twilight’ freedom. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking short that’s difficult to shake.
Some viewers may dismiss ‘Certain Women’ as being dull or about nothing, but those who engage with it will find themselves remembering these characters and worlds long after the film finishes. Reichardt captures people and places in unseen corners of America like few others, treating them with poetic dignity and without forcing grand dramatics onto lives that don’t have such things. In fact, the weakest portions of the film come when the filmmaker attempts to force connections into shorts that don’t need them. They feel like superficial additions to stories that work best devoid of any storytelling or filmmaking theatrics. It’s hardly a movie killer and Reichardt has a whole career worth of tiny tales that rarely stretch beyond her distinct brand of poetic simplicity. In fact, the most potent short in ‘Certain Women’ might be the highlight of her entire career. For those who have felt the pain of accepting life’s defeats and found strength in quiet survival, ‘Certain Women’ is a beautiful ode to the small indignities of life.