Review: Directress Film Festival

Certain Women | Kelly Reichardt | USA | 2016 | 107 minutes

WUD Film Directress Film Festival, Union South Marquee Theater, Saturday, March 11, 3:00pm»

Edwanike Harbour argues that director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) delivers a beautiful bore with her new feature, Certain Women, which returns to Madison on Saturday for WUD Film’s Directress Film Festival.

Editor’s Note:  The WUD Film Directress Film Festival continues tonight and runs through Sunday, featuring great films like Hooligan Sparrow and Cameraperson. In addition to Certain Women, we will review Evolution and Window Horses this week, and you can read our review of Toni Erdmann here. Meanwhile, check out the entire schedule, as well as previews at The Capital Times and LakeFrontRow. 


WUD Film’s Directress Film Festival this weekend delivers an interesting line up and provides an adventurous lead-in to this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival for cinephiles of all stripes. However, those of you who are fans of Kelly Reichardt (count me in this camp) may want to dig your heels in for Certain Women. The moniker indie sleeper really does not do it justice. For all of its subtlety and taut performances, it is simply a beautiful bore.

Certain Women follows three women whose lives intersect living in rural Montana. This tells you all you really need to know about the pace of this film, but Reichardt’s strengths don’t lie in portraying riveting thrillers. While 2013’s Night Moves showed us a glimpse of Reichart’s ability to construct a tense plot and bring out the best in her cast, she definitely let her foot off the gas with Certain Women.

Small town lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) represents Fuller (Jared Harris), who has suffered a severe workplace injury due to employer negligence. Unfortunately, he didn’t take the proper steps to ensure a fair settlement and finds himself unable to recuperate all of his losses. He casually drops by to visit Laura as she patiently tries to explain to him that there is little else to be done in his situation. They travel to Billings, where a male lawyer tells him the same thing, and Fuller finally accepts this conclusion.

Laura believes that Fuller questioned her expertise because she’s a woman. Fuller’s eccentric behavior thrusts Laura into an extremely dangerous situation that she has no business in, but these are occupational hazards a woman must face in this setting.

Michelle Williams has given increasingly stronger performances in the last several years (Blue Valentine, Manchester by the Sea). She has been a bit of a muse for Reichardt in recent times (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy). In Certain Women she gives an equally strong performance as Gina Lewis, who with her husband needs to convince a neighbor to sell them sandstone to build a prairie house. She manages to get the answer she wants, only to be undermined by her husband. The neighbor assumes that she works for him but it is Gina’s steely resolve that has allowed her to call the shots and put food on the table for herself and her family. Gina is underappreciated by their adolescent daughter even though Gina has led by example in an unforgiving territory.

Finally, Kirsten Stewart extends herself to play Beth Travis, a recent law school graduate who is willing to travel four hours to teach a night-time adult education course to avoid the worrisome fate of selling shoes for a living. Being a lawyer is a big accomplishment for women in her family and with her options being limited in this part of the country, she is willing to do whatever she needs to do in this hard land. A rancher named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) stumbles upon this course and takes a shine to Beth. There are certain things that can be said without saying a word, and this budding—but one-sided—romance is about as awkward as anything you will see on screen. The desolate isolation Jamie must experience as a ranch hand with no one to talk to let alone the dearth of romantic partners must be brutal. She is afforded a small victory when she gives Beth a ride to a local diner on the back of her horse. The small grin that spreads across her face while they ride silently might be the most perfect moment in this plodding film.

I can honestly admit that I am not the target audience for this movie and I am one of the most patient of all cinephiles. Rarely have I ever watched a film and found no bit of common ground by which to relate to the characters or subject matter. I had trouble connecting to these rural Western women—not because of their battles with sexism but due to other demographic differences that prevented me from connecting with them.

While I appreciate this film as a modern day Western featuring cowgirls as it were, there is a such thing as being too understated. Certain women (and men) will find this sleepy slice of Americana more compelling than I did, but this unfortunately is not Reichardt’s best entry. Her body of work still stands and I look forward to stronger material from her in the near future.