My first day at TIFF is a split result. On the one hand, I made it here without losing my phone this time, which is a MAJOR improvement over last year. On the other hand, the first film I saw, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is not awesome. It has incredible acting going for it and not a whole lot else. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, as adapted by Reichardt, Certain Women is a series of vignettes following three different women in Montana, whose lives are only tangentially connected. It’s not a big deal that these women never come together as any kind of whole, but the lack of narrative is going to frustrate almost everyone who sees this movie.
Certain Women is basically just “a day in the life” of three different women living different kinds of lives in Montana. Conceptually, I really love that this is a movie about the regular lives of regular women, without any need for window-dressing with melodrama. This movie does not pander or cater to mainstream cinematic tastes—there are no revelations and none of the stories have satisfying resolutions because life usually doesn’t come with a bow tied on top. But that’s also the exact thing that is going to make this totally unappealing to most moviegoers—nothing happens.
The film opens with Laura Dern as Laura, a lawyer whose client (Jared Harris, Mad Men) is upset that his personal injury lawsuit has fallen apart. Laura has to take him to see another lawyer, a man, in order for her client to understand he can’t sue, and in a great moment she laments the fact that her client didn’t believe her after eight months of telling him he had no case, but her male associate is believed within moments. In one line, Laura tells you everything you need to know about a lifetime of being second-guessed and overruled despite her expertise, just because she’s a woman. We also see that Laura is having an affair with a man (James Le Gros, Point Break), and she has to keep dealing with her troubled client.
The second story featured is that of Gina (Michelle Williams), who is building her dream house in the woods. Gina’s pretty tightly wound, but there are signs that her family is fairly well off and she is the one bringing that bread home. Williams is excellent, as always, but of the three central women, she has the least to do, and her storyline is the most narratively aimless and pedestrian of the group. I can’t help but think a stronger Gina storyline makes Certain Women a bit more watchable.
But then there is Jamie, played by Native American actress Lily Gladstone, who is BREATHTAKING in this film. She is flat-out INCREDIBLE, and makes Certain Women worth it just to discover her. It will be a major disservice if she doesn’t emerge from this film as a breakout talent. There aren’t enough capital letters to emphasize how incredible she is. Lily Gladstone. Is. PHENOMENAL.
Jamie is a ranch hand whose repetitive days are mind-numbing, enlivened only by an adorable corgi, until she meets Beth (Kristen Stewart), a young lawyer teaching a night class in town. Stewart is great as Beth, displaying more of that late confidence and naturalism, and she’s a terrific foil for Gladstone, with Beth’ nerves rebounding off Jamie’s shyness. Jamie falls for Beth, and the poignancy and longing that Gladstone projects is deeply affecting. You feel every bit of Jamie’s repressed emotions, and her not-crying face is more heartbreaking than most actors sobbing. She does so much with so little, I simply cannot heap enough praise on Lily Gladstone. She’s tremendous.
But there’s still that problem of no real narrative taking place. If you’re super into watching good acting, then Certain Women will be rewarding. If you’re a hardcore fan of one of these actors, or you want to get on the Lily Gladstone bandwagon early, then you’ll enjoy approximately thirty minutes of it. And if you’re a film geek who goes in for framing and slowly paced editing, then this is the film for you. But most people go to the movies to be told a story, and Certain Women isn’t telling a story. It is a totally immersive glimpse into the lives of women, but the lack of resolution will drive most people batty. I don’t hate it, but I’m not sure I really like it, either.. Certain Women is pretty much just for hardcore cinephiles who get off on shot composition and editing, and for giving us Lily Gladstone.