BIFF 2016: Certain Women

Bergen International Film Festival 2016

Kelly Reichardt’s oeuvre is full of quiet and tender moments that says more than most, with less than many. From her debut River of Grass to her latest Certain Women, Reichardt is unmistakably an auteur if there ever was one, but never does she – or her movies – draw attention to this or themselves; they exist purely and attentively, looking at real people in real situations.

Certain Women marks the first time Reichardt tells a story that is not her own. Based on a collection of short stories written by Maile Meloy, the movie tells three different stories about three different women. To introduce each story on paper is not to do them any favors, as it is impossible to reproduce, or capture their restrained and subdued humanism through short descriptory sentences, but alas let me try: Laura Dern plays a lawyer who has to deal with the monotony of every-day sexism, oh and also defuse a hostage situation with one of her clients (Jared Harris). Michelle Williams plays a woman who sets out to build her dream home with her husband (James Le Gros) and daughter (Sara Rodier). Finally, and most melancholically sentimental is the story of a ranch hand played by the revelatory Lily Gladstone, who stumbles into a class thought by Kristen Stewart, a law graduate from many towns over.


The stories are all small and real – perhaps with the exception of the hostage situation – and through Reichardt’s keen and refined sensibilities, they become endlessly authentic. Reichardt has an uncanny ability to find the modest and genuine moments of life with her movies, be it through connections, situations or relationships. There are no characters or situations that feels forced or artificial, rather they breathe and grow naturally. She manages to capture things no other contemporary American filmmaker does (not in the realm of blockbusters, nor on the indie-scene), as she delves into the quiet spaces inbetween moments – inbetween a conversation, a look, a gesture. Her (close to) laconic language is full of sympathy and understanding, and in Certain Women especially towards loneliness and miscommunication. Her films manages to speak for the voiceless, to allow moments of real transcendence to transpire on the screen, without pomposity or ostentation. Few filmmakers make films with the same philosophy as Reichardt does, because in her movies, one listens to understand, not to reply.

Reichardt has also been described by many as a “poet of the American Northwest,” and one would be hard-pressed to present a case against this. She uses her landscapes to their fullest extent, indulging in a symbiosis of character and place, where both imprint themselves on the other. Be it characters lost in distance, or alone in a vast nothingness, Reichardt captures all this with a visual richness that makes each frame a true canvas. This is no different in Certain Women, where the small and isolated towns allow for both intimacy and fragile connections, and the ranch an unspoiled haven of freedom and solitude stunningly captured on 16mm film.


Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart are all as good as one expects them to be at this point; Dern deeply sympathetic and perceptive; Williams carries with her a melancholic aura that is hard to pinpoint; and Stewart is both affectless and warm, distant and loving. It is, however, Lily Gladstone who steals the spotlight here. Her low-key and understated performance exudes so much love and attraction, loneliness and solitude that one cannot help but to empathise with her throughout. She walks a thin line that many actors can only aspire to, and she does it in her fourth feature.

Every movie written and directed by Kelly Reichardt has a place in my heart (I have not seen Ode) and each for different reasons. River of Grass a tremendously unique road/romance/crime movie; Old Joy a testament to friendship and love; Wendy and Lucy a heart-wrenching movie about self-exploration and realization; Meek’s Cutoff, well, the greatest modern western; and Night Moves, a flawed, but beautifully contemplative environmentalist movie. Certain Women is Reichardt at her most refined, all her ideas and sensibilities come together to form a movie that may feel as if it is about nothing, but really, it is about everything.

Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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