‘Certain Women’ (2016) | Sundance Review

There is a thin line between a film’s pace being deliberate and slow. Kelly Reichardt loves to tightrope across that line. On occasion, she will waver to the slow side, but more consistently, she manages to stay on the deliberate, measured side. Certain Women, based on short stories by Maile Meloy, might be her most lively film to date, which has to do with its three story construction, a tactic that never lets a story go on longer than it should. Her quiet observations of these three women’s lives are hypnotic, even if the third story is not as strong as the first two.

Let me get the story I didn’t particularly care for out of the way first. Jamie (Lily Gladstone) is a lonely ranch hand, going through the monotonous routine of taking care of the stable of hours during a Montana winter. On a whim, she stumbles into a night class about school law taught by recent law school grad Beth (Kristen Stewart), who makes an eight hour roundtrip in order to teach the class. After class, the two take up a regular tradition of going to a local diner to eat. Well, Beth eats, and Jamie watches. Jamie’s infatuation grows overtime to the point where she tries to track down Beth in her actual town.

My biggest issue here is I was not sure whether Jamie’s pining was supposed to be endearing, creepy, some mixture of both, or what. Their final meeting plays like it’s supposed to be a touching, wistful conclusion, but my skin was crawling. I think the constant repeating of Jamie’s daily routine, including an adorable dog chasing after her while driving around the ranch, is fascinating, but the core of that segment does not work for me at all.

The first two stories, though, I loved. The first centers on a lawyer (Laura Dern) dealing with a client (Jared Harris) who for eight months has been trying to sue his former employer for an injury, despite her constant protestations that the company is not responsible and nothing can come of this case. When she suggests getting a second opinion from another lawyer, who happens to be a man, he accepts his fate without any question. It’s moments like this that I love. They quietly show how women are perceived in certain parts of society. No big deal is made about it, but it’s a tiny thorn in the side of gender equality. Harris’ character still respects Laura (Dern’s character’s name happens to be Laura), but a different perception can make the smallest difference.

This is even more apparent in my favorite story, the middle one, featuring Michelle Williams as a woman trying to buy some sandstone off of an old, fragile man (Rene Auberjonois) for her and her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) to build a house out in the country. Williams’ Gina is the one in charge of the operation, yet when the two approach him about the stone, Ryan will never let Gina have the last word, always offering an ultimatum. It’s a detail you can miss if not fully engaged with the film but an important one. This is the smallest story of the three, which makes its details all the more powerful.

Reichardt has always been great at establishing a sense of place and how women work in that place. Certain Women tackles that most directly, and though it does not fully come together, most of the pieces are so strong you can’t help but be mesmerized by it. Yes, I started to trail off in the last act, but the first two and the codas are so strong, as well as its subtle and poignant examination of women, makes it well worth seeing despite its issues.

GRADE: B

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