American cinema, Charisse Gendron, cinema, independent cinema, James Le Gros, Kelly Reichardt, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, LGBT cinema, Lily Gladstone, Michelle Williams, queer cinema, women and film, women directors
In the first of three episodes in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, a man suffering brain damage from a work injury is futilely attempting to sue his former employer. He uses the case to try to press a friendship on his small-town Montana lawyer, Laura Wells (Laura Dern), who rebuffs him.
Laura is as level-headed as her client is disturbed, but also just as lonely. When he lands in jail after taking her hostage in a stand-off with the police, she visits him (bearing milkshakes, as Laura Dern would). He has caused her nothing but problems, but she has her reasons for sticking around: atonement for a failure of justice, simple kindness, and (after being jilted by her married lover) a need to connect with someone, anyone, who desires her company.
In the film’s second vignette, Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams) also copes with a man whom it is easy to see as a victim. To construct her dream house of native materials, she and her husband, Ryan (James Le Gros), must wrest some coveted blocks of sandstone from an elderly neighbor. The old man has done nothing with the stones, the remains of a demolished school that once stood on his property. But they belong to him and to the history and culture of the town, into which the Lewises and their notions about authentic architecture do not quite fit.
Ryan’s building of the house for his wife is compensation for his catting around town (with the lawyer Laura West, for one) and general uselessness. He leaves the figurative heavy lifting to Gina when it comes to asking the neighbor for the sandstone. She does, in the course of an awkward conversation underscoring the old man’s frailty and attachment to the past. The haul is moved to the Lewis’ campsite, leaving the viewer to decide whether Gina’s appreciation of the sandstone, not for its nostalgic value but for its intrinsic beauty, makes her its rightful owner. If nothing else, she, unlike Laura West, shows that a woman can take as well as give.
In the third of the film’s stories, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a farmer, falls in love with Beth (Kristen Stewart), a freshly-minted lawyer teaching a continuing education course at the local college. To make the class, Beth drives four hours from Billings and back once a week. After each class, she bolts a burger, with Jamie gazing on appreciatively, before heading out of town.
The rhythms of the ardent yet placid Jamie and jittery Beth could not be more different, and the teacher shows no signs of returning the crush. In fact, halfway through the course, she turns over the class to another teacher, evidently without giving Jamie a thought. But when Jamie makes the drive to Billings to say goodbye, their brief, discreet parking lot conversation illuminates both Jamie’s gentle, forthright candor and Beth’s perfect understanding of what has gone down.