During her 20-year career, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has carved out a singular, determinedly off-center space in the cinematic landscape, working in sometimes-epic scale ("Meek's Cutoff") as well as in intimate chamber pieces ("Old Joy"). Reichardt adapted the short stories of Maile Meloy into a portrait of ambivalence and solitude, albeit with less narrative momentum than in previous outings.

During her 20-year career, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has carved out a singular, determinedly off-center space in the cinematic landscape, working in sometimes-epic scale ("Meek's Cutoff") as well as in intimate chamber pieces ("Old Joy") but always with a quietly observant, compassionate eye on human-scale foibles and dynamics.

Reichardt adapted the short stories of Maile Meloy into a portrait of ambivalence and solitude, albeit with less narrative momentum than in previous outings.

A triptych of subtly interlocking stories, "Certain Women" features some of the year's best performances: Laura Dern plays Laura, a lawyer living in tiny Livingston, Montana, where nothing much happens outside your random, everyday hostage situation; Michelle Williams plays Gina, who is building a home on a scenic patch of land outside town; and Kristen Stewart plays Beth, a young lawyer in training who has agreed to teach a weekly night course on educational law in Belfry, several miles away.

Just how the lives of Laura, Gina and Beth intersect (or don't) gives "Certain Women" an intriguing, if wispy, whiff of mystery.

Mostly, though, Reichardt is interested in portraiture and how character is revealed through the small, sometimes extraordinary, actions each woman takes to cope with her sense of stifling limitation. Laura's story is the most incident-filled, as she's drawn into the desperate acts of one of her clients. Beth nurses nascent ambitions, which makes her all the more fascinating to the shy, bored female ranch hand who drops in on one of her classes and becomes quietly smitten.

The ranch hand is played in an impressive breakout turn by newcomer Lily Gladstone, who infuses the lonely young woman she portrays with heartbreaking vulnerability and hope. Surprisingly, Williams delivers the most memorable performance of "Certain Women." (Not because she isn't always superb, but because her character is the least rounded-out.)

In the role of an alienated wife and mother who has sublimated her thwarted ambitions into the home she's building, Williams projects any number of emotions during the course of her brief chapter. They range from her resigned grief at being shut out by her moody teenage daughter and distant husband to shrewd self-interest when she angles for a pile of choice sandstone on the property of a confused elderly man played by Rene Auberjonois.

"Certain Women" is about women's fraught, potent relationships to their environments — in this case, the vast expanse of the contemporary American West and the far more pinched, constricting backdrop of others' expectations.

In some ways, "Certain Women" feels like too little. The viewer wants more from each of these brief stories, and we instinctively crave some kind of cathartic confrontation or union toward the end. Instead, Reichardt lets her flawed, enigmatic heroines keep struggling, persevering and relishing what can sometimes pass for tiny victories.

You know a filmmaker is in supreme command of her medium when what she creates feels less like a movie than a candid glimpse of ongoing lives