Certain Women ★★★½

Film #48 among my 52 Films by Women 2017

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt always delivers a consistently high level of quality in her work. She brings unique characters and situations to the screen, and I was quite eager to see her most recent effort, a weaving together of three short stories set in Montana from the fiction anthologies (2002, 2009) of noted American author Maile Meloy.

The first act stars Laura Dern as lawyer Laura Wells in Livingston, MT, who has a troublesome client named William Fuller (Jared Harris). The man was injured on the job, which caused him a disability that makes him unable to work. He keeps showing up at Wells' office, hoping she can help him sue the company, which was at fault for his injuries. However, there's nothing she can do, because he agreed to a modest settlement and the case is closed.

As a last resort, Wells takes Fuller to a lawyer in Billings for a second opinion, and the assessment is the same. There can be no successful lawsuit. In desperation, Fuller breaks into his old company and takes a security guard hostage. He has the police summon Wells. He wants her to come look at his personnel file and see how the company cheated him. What he said is true, but with the police are on the scene, Wells has to make a potentially life-changing decision. Pretty neat stuff for a short segment.

In the second act, we meet a married couple, Gina and Ryan Lewis (Michelle Williams and James Le Gros). They are staying weekends in a large tent with their teenage daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier), while building their own home on a wooded lot, board by board and brick by brick. Actually, we know Ryan already because we saw him at the start of Act One, having a lunchtime affair with Wells and heard him breaking up with her later by phone.

The Lewis's stop at the home of a neighbor called Albert (René Auberjonois), who has a big pile of sandstone building block is his yard, left from the school that once stood on the property. Gina talks Albert into giving them the stone to use for their new house, and Albert agrees, although Ryan insists on giving him plenty of opportunities to say no. Two weeks later, the Lewis's come by with a flatbed truck and some friends and load up all the blocks. Albert acts as if he doesn't even see them.

The third act begins in Belfry at a night school, where a young lawyer named Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) teaches a class in school law. On a whim, a local horse-tender called Jamie (Lily Gladstone) drops in on the class, and she ends up having dinner afterwards with Beth, who explains she has a four-hour commute each way from where she lives in Livingston. Jamie, who lives a very isolated and lonely existence on a ranch by herself all winter, strikes up a friendship with Beth. She even gives her a horseback ride to the local diner one night. She learns that Beth isn't happy with the long commute. And it appears that Jamie might be developing a crush on her teacher. But one evening, Beth is a no show for the class. She has turned it over to a local lawyer.

One of the constants holding the three stories together is the Big Sky Country itself, often cloudy, always expansive, with its surrounding snow-capped mountains. There's also the sense of isolation. Everyone seems to be alone in his/her own skin. The physical overlaps of the stories are only tangential, but it reminded me a little of Kieślowski's "The Decalogue" (1989) in that respect.

This film won Gladstone a number of minor awards for Best Supporting Actress. She's such a sad character, you just want to give her a huge hug. Meanwhile, Reichardt picked up the EDA Female Focus Award for Best Woman Screenwriter from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. There's no "oh wow" experience here, but watch this for some solid acting, directing and scripting, guaranteed to satisfy any interest in exceptional indie cinema.

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