By Alex McPherson

A gentle, tender exploration of art, creativity, and life’s winding, surprising journey, director Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up” reveals poignant truths through its small-scale yet meaningful narrative.

Reichardt’s film centers on the anxious, non-assertive, and perpetually fatigued Lizzy (Michelle Williams), an artist struggling to make a name for herself in Portland and preparing for an upcoming show. She would much rather immerse herself in her (somewhat tortured-looking) clay sculptures than deal with the messy distractions of other human beings, much less endure the dull grind of making enough money to pay rent.

She works as an administrative assistant at the Oregon College of Art and Craft — facilitating promotion of other, more successful artists — where her mother, Jean (Maryann Plunkett), is the artistic director. This furthers Lizzy’s low self-esteem and makes asking for a vacation day quite uncomfortable. With her slumped shoulders and exhausted, stand-offish demeanor, Lizzy stands apart from students who exuberantly indulge in their creative callings on campus, especially those doing interpretive dance in full, glorious view.

Her neighbor/friend/landlord, Jo (Hong Chau) — a comparatively outgoing, popular, successful artist herself, with two upcoming art shows— hasn’t resolved Lizzy’s non-working hot water heater, adding yet another layer of annoyance for the quietly resentful Lizzy to contend with. Plus, a few nights before her big show, Lizzy is woken up in the middle of the night by a pigeon who’s wandered into her apartment and been attacked by her cat. After Lizzy leaves the pigeon outside post cat-attack, Jo, of course, bandages it up, and entrusts it in Lizzy’s care. 

Along with that, there’s her father, Bill (Judd Hirsch), a retired artist himself who lets two ne’er do well drifters crash at his place, and her brother Sean (a scene-stealing John Magaro), who Jean describes as the artistic “genius” of the family, and whose turbulent mental health weighs heavily on Lizzy’s mind. 

It’s all a lot for Lizzy to juggle as she prepares to present her work, but Reichardt doesn’t indulge in heightened melodrama. “Showing Up,” with its breezy yet thoughtful rhythms, reflects the power of art as self-expression, as an all-consuming force, and as a means of bringing people together; of how small acts of compassion yield surprising returns, and how life itself, like Lizzy’s malleable sculptures, remains beautiful through its imperfections. Moments of connection show up in the most unexpected places.

With all these themes, “Showing Up” would seem at first glance to be a very busy movie. Under Reichardt’s patient direction, though, the film effectively brings us into Lizzy’s world and illuminates the complex connections that both create distance and bring us together. Similar to her previous masterpiece, “First Cow,” Reichardt gives scenes plenty of time to breathe, letting us sit with Lizzy’s discontent, appreciate art of all forms, and watch a story unfold that doesn’t force-feed viewers answers or wrap everything up neatly in a bow. 

Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond thrive within the nuances of characters’ interactions — the minimalism reveals multitudes about the characters, trusting viewers to put the pieces together themselves and recognize evolution in characters’ arcs that doesn’t feel over-the-top and sensationalized, but beautifully human.

Complemented by an excellent ensemble that’s perfectly in-tune with the film’s low-key vibes and an efficient style that encourages looking beneath the surface (enhanced by Ethan Rose’s serene, flute-based score), the film has a power that percolates upon further reflection — so long as viewers are willing to adapt to its measured pacing and lack of traditionally “dramatic” moments. 

Indeed, “Showing Up” takes ample time observing Lizzy slowly but surely unlocking her compassion towards others and the world in general, while providing a grounded look at artists-at-work. One sequence, for example, sees Lizzy rearranging the arms on one of her sculptures, which were originally made by artist Cynthia Lahti; cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s camera sits over her shoulder for an extended long-take, with only the intermittent “coo-coo” from the pigeon to accompany her. It’s both a quiet, drawn-out scene, and one where so much happens internally, if we’re game to put ourselves in Lizzy’s shoes.

Creating art is Lizzy’s preferred way of communicating with the world, and “Showing Up” illustrates how her lifestyle is both rewarding and barely sustainable. Her passion and persistence are often at odds with the rigid expectations of adulthood and personal challenges by those who, at least initially, let her down at critical moments. The aforementioned pigeon, which Lizzy first cares for out of a sense of guilt, is partly responsible for the erosion of her cynicism and reservedness; she finds some solace and relatability to this often-ignored animal in need.

Although the pigeon’s symbolism could be heavy-handed under a less-skilled storyteller, Reichardt’s approach remains neither overplayed nor maudlin. Lizzy’s bond with the bird, as well as her troubled, paranoid brother Sean; her stubborn yet caring parents; and Jo, a close friend whom she also harbors jealousy towards, point to an overarching message: the small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness Lizzy takes towards them (showing up, in other words), and vice-versa, ultimately make all the difference, inspiring hope for a new day of possibilities.

Williams is outstanding here — bringing to life Lizzy’s malaise and emotional growth in a manner that never feels overstated, rather embracing intricacies and minutiae of body language, not unlike the sculptures Lizzy so meticulously puts together. Chau is similarly exceptional as Jo, radiating enthusiasm for her craft and frustration through her flakiness and laissez-faire mindset regarding her responsibilities as a landlord.

Hirsch is charming as Lizzy’s father (with old man jokes to spare), and Magaro stands out as Sean, bringing true pathos and melancholy to his amusingly deadpan comments. André Benjamin is excellent as a laid-back kiln operator, possessing a warmth and nonjudgmental attitude contrasting Lizzy’s high-strung demeanor and the obsessive attention she puts toward her sculptures.

“Showing Up,” alas, will likely alienate viewers refusing to dig into the small-scale yet potent canvas that Reichardt lays before us. The film’s style occasionally lets scenes drag on just a beat too long, and the film requires some leg-work to untangle the threads of its deceptively straightforward narrative. For me, however, “Showing Up” is one of 2023’s strongest efforts yet — a life-affirming film that’ll only grow stronger with time.

“Showing Up” is a 2023 comedy-drama directed by Kelly Reichardt and starring Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, Judd Hirsch, John Magaro, Andre Benjamin and Maryann Plunkett. It is rated R for brief graphic nudity and runtime is 1 hour, 47 minutes. It opened in select theatres April 28. Alex’s Grade: A.

By Alex McPherson

An exhausting film filled with compelling performances, director Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” exerts a vice-like grip throughout, reveling in both discomfort and emotional catharsis.

Adapted from a play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay, “The Whale” centers around Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a reclusive, morbidly obese English teacher giving remote lessons within a fetid apartment in Idaho during the 2016 presidential primaries.

Suffering from congestive heart failure, and refusing medical care, Charlie doesn’t have much time left — prompting this kind yet tormented soul to reflect on his mistakes and seek some semblance of inner peace. Above all else, he wants to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who prickles with rage and resentment at not only him, but the world at large. 

Eight years prior, Charlie abandoned Ellie and his then-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton) to be with his gay lover, Alan, who later passed away, leaving Charlie reeling with grief and practically eating himself into the grave. Charlie is looked after by his friend, Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who shares a past with him and who is battling her own all-encompassing demons.

As the days tick by, Charlie frequently refers back to an essay one of his students wrote about “Moby Dick” — a blunt interpretation whose honesty affects him to his very core.

The stage is set for in-your-face melodrama, and “The Whale” certainly tries to make viewers feel as much as possible. Yet, despite the script’s heavy-handedness and cinematic flourishes that detract from its noble messages, Aronofsky’s film soars on the undeniable power of its performances. Fraser is marvelous, bringing tenderness to a character too often put in extreme situations. 

Indeed, Charlie is seemingly at battle with the film itself — a tug-of-war between empathy and cruelty. Aronofsky — known as a boundary-pushing filmmaker — has no qualms about putting him through the ringer from beginning to end. Despite a dreary, limited setting (enhanced by a claustrophobic aspect ratio), the near-constant punishment from the outside world, and his untenable condition, Charlie remains hopeful that he can help Ellie restore some faith in herself to weather their harsh world, and thereby right the greatest wrong in his own tragic life. 

With a fatsuit and strong makeup work, Fraser’s first impression is startling (even played to “horror” lengths at certain points), but his earnest line delivery brings sensitivity and sly humor to a character otherwise harshly defined. It’s difficult to overstate just how effective Fraser is here — even the most clumsy, heavy-handed soliloquies feel impactful thanks to his raw skill as a performer and his ability to convey meaning that isn’t always there in the screenplay.

The rest of the cast is exceptional as well, particularly Chau, who brings much-needed groundedness to the film’s increasingly melodramatic plot developments. Liz is a high-strung, enabling, and grief-stricken person herself — doing what she can for Charlie, while also neglecting to appreciate his last wishes.

Sadie Sink

Sink, on the other hand, is downright scary as Ellie, a teenager warped by cynicism and insecurity. It often seems like Sink, and the script, have Ellie dialed up to 11, which lessens the character’s authenticity and leans into exaggeration. Still, in the few moments where Ellie isn’t verbally abusing Charlie (or worse), viewers get glimpses beneath the facade, where some warmth and compassion remain. 

Also worth mentioning is Ty Simpkins, who plays Thomas, a church missionary who keeps showing up at Charlie’s doorstep and wants to “save” him before the end-times. Like most of the people Charlie interacts with, Thomas doesn’t have his best interests at heart, and “The Whale” emphasizes Charlie’s personal salvation over prejudiced, preordained constraints.

Aronofsky’s film is far less successful, though, in its translation from stage to screen. This isn’t a subtle film by any means, and blunt symbolism abounds — notably in how Charlie’s weight can function as a metaphor for his regrets, and how the film paints parallels between his body and that of the White Whale in “Moby Dick.” Moments where Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique showcase the depths of Charlie’s desperation stand out as unnecessary and demeaning, inserted for shock value at his expense.

Ironically, the sequences where “The Whale” is most like a stage-play are where it works best — pleading for viewers’ sympathy, sacrificing emotional nuance, and giving the ensemble plenty of opportunities to loudly declare their awards-worthiness. Strange though this dichotomy is, it remains engrossing.

Less than the sum of its parts, albeit absorbing throughout, “The Whale” is worth watching as an acting showcase and an examination of ideas in a dramatic framework that’s seemingly, fascinatingly at war with itself.

“The Whale” is a 2022 drama directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Brenda Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau and Ty Simpkins. It’s rated R for some language, some drug use and sexual content and has a 1 hour, 57 minutes runtime. It opened in select theaters Dec. 21. Alex’s Grade: B

By Lynn Venhaus
Brendan Fraser is heartbreaking and haunting as a morbidly obese recluse with mental and physical health problems in the difficult-to-watch “The Whale.”

He’s a reclusive English teacher who has an opportunity to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink).

As Charlie, he is attracting year-end awards attention, and deservedly so. It’s a stunning, brave performance from Fraser, possibly his best. He depicts this bruised man as a gentle soul whose tragic flaw was caring too much in a disingenuous environment.

Now 54, he has been acting for three decades. Deemed a heartthrob in his 20s after such films as “George of the Jungle” and “The Mummy,” his varied career has included comedies (“Airheads,” “Encino Man”), dramas (“Gods and Monsters,” “Crash”), TV (“The Affair” and “Trust”), and voice-over animation work (King of the Hill,” “The Simpsons”). Most recently, he’s been playing Cliff Steele on the HBOMax series “Doom Patrol.”

While wearing prosthetics to make him look like a 600-lb. man, Fraser allows us to see the hurting human being inside. Charlie is dying and can’t stop eating himself to death – it’s a choice.

Shots of his girth, his inability to move without assistance, and a trapped, confined, lethargic existence where he shuns easier mobility are painful and sad.

The remarkable transformation was crafted by makeup artist Adrien Morot, who was Oscar nominated for “Barney’s Version,” and has worked on the 2019 “Pet Sematary” reboot and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” among his credits.

“The Whale” is a bleak adaptation of a play by Samuel D. Hunter on how a character gets into his current predicament because of loss, guilt, and love. The amount of self-loathing makes it painful to witness, but Fraser is never not authentic.

Confined to a run-down two-bedroom home that reflects how frozen in time the lead character is, Charlie has not been able to get past his lover’s suicide years earlier. He has shut himself off from society, hidden away in a grief cocoon of his own making.

A learned man, as reflected by crammed bookshelves, with an academic career – he teaches online English classes, he offers to write his estranged daughter’s high school assignments. He is desperate to reconnect with her, and it becomes a shot at redemption.  

Sadie Sink

As played by Sadie Sink, Ellie is a sullen, snarling, and angry teen who lashes out at everyone, especially her father, whom she blames for many of his failings, and hers. Her dad left when she was 8 years old, because he had fallen in love with one of his students.

The plot connects more dots, because nurse Liz, in a tough-love performance from Hong Chau, has a history with Charlie.

She does not indulge in his solitary imprisonment, but at the same time, tries to be realistic about his death march.

The playwright obviously has an axe to grind about evangelicals and their quest for salvation. The religious ties are revealed slowly, but Thomas, a missionary from “New Life Ministries,” looking very similar to a Mormon, attempts a conversion. He’s adroitly played by Ty Simpkins, now grown-up, most known for being the older brother in “Jurassic World” and a kid in “Iron Man 3.”

He is not as innocent as he seems, but seems unfairly targeted by Ellie, who can’t hide her disdain — but the mocking is cruel.

The backstories get sorted out, but no encounter is a random one. Samantha Morton has another outstanding cameo (she is brilliant as an informant in “She Said”) as Charlie’s bitter ex-wife. The resentment is no longer simmering, it’s a full-on rolling boil.

A lot of yelling is directed at Charlie, and between mother and daughter, so the confrontations are blunt and in-your-face. You begin to understand why Charlie wants to be left alone. Why deal with the messiness of humanity?

The playwright, who wrote the film adaptation, set the play in Mormon country in Idaho, and belabors the point repeatedly. 

The theme doesn’t vary that much from director Darren Aronofsky’s familiar darker and often nihilistic films (“Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan,” “Mother!”).

Brendan Fraser

You can see its stage roots showing, and the author clumsily connects Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” obsession to the situation facing Charlie, while the evangelical ties are also heavy-handed.

Even though glimmers of hope emerge, when Charlie says: “Who would want me to be part of their life?,” it’s a gut-punch.

There are two gasp-worthy scenes – an eat-your-feelings binge that’s horrifying and a devastating reveal to students, that one must summon empathy and compassion or check out.

So much of the distressing story has a “too little, too late” tinge to it, adding to the feelings of regret and recrimination that permeate the space.

Because of the script’s complexities, you know that the ending won’t be a sweet, sappy resolution. Yet, the way it concludes is still unexpected.

Overall, “The Whale” is an unsettling and uneven work, marked by good performances that deserved better material.

“The Whale” is a 2022 drama directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Brenda Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau and Ty Simpkins. It’s rated R for some language, some drug use and sexual content and has a 1 hour, 57 minutes runtime. It opened in select theaters Dec. 21. Lynn’s Grade: C.

Hong Chau in “The Whale”

By Alex McPherson
Like a Christmas miracle, director Andrew Ahn’s new film, “Driveways,” restored my faith in humanity.

Cody (Lucas Jaye) is a sensitive boy struggling to fit in with his peers. He helps his loving yet overwhelmed mother, Kathy (Hong Chau), clean out his late aunt’s house in a rural New York town to prepare it for sale. Cody meets Del (the late Brian Dennehy), a widowed war veteran living next door, and eventually forms a friendship with him that profoundly impacts both their lives and the lives of those around them for the better.

Sure, the plot sounds exceedingly saccharine, and although “Driveways” follows predictable beats, Ahn’s humanistic approach to the material sets it apart. Viewers shouldn’t expect anything like the bombastic screamfest of “Hillbilly Elegy,” thank goodness, but rather a film that feels like a bittersweet pat on the back. 

With a gentle touch that prizes emotional subtlety over heavy-handedness, “Driveways” zeroes in on a few characters who all feel adrift and disoriented in their lives. Cody is lonely and doesn’t seem to embrace the joys of childhood, in need of a friend.

Kathy is processing the death of her sister — who she became distanced from in adulthood — and the responsibilities of caring for Cody as a single, Asian American parent, while also working to become a nurse.

Del is coming to grips with his remaining years and the mistakes made throughout his life, waiting for a figurative sunset to close out his final chapter. 

The stage is set for a depressing tale, but “Driveways” isn’t a depressing film — showing these characters’ potential for growth despite their struggles, as well as the meaningful impacts that acts of goodwill can have on their lives, or, in fact, anyone’s life.

The film emphasizes smaller, quieter moments of human connection that feel earned and genuine, with an emotional core that sneaks up on viewers and encourages them to go out into the real world and be compassionate to others. 

Much of the power of “Driveways” comes from Ahn’s devotion to letting us sit with the characters and watch them interact in a way that doesn’t feel traditionally “dramatic.”

Indeed, the film progresses in a relatively low-key fashion, with sympathetic characters whose struggles feel relatable, and whose arcs feel earned and thoughtful. Larger topics linger in the periphery— among them prejudice, economic inequality, and the stress of single parenting  — but “Driveways” isn’t really concerned with hard-hitting social commentary.

What Ahn’s film spotlights, on the other hand, is how seemingly mundane acts of kindness and reaching out can bring people together, even those with vastly different life experiences.

The actors portraying the film’s small cast are exceptional, helping to make the characters feel like real human beings. Jaye gives an absolutely incredible performance, conveying an emotional range and nuance that would be impressive for an actor of any age.

Chau is also compelling to watch, illustrating her character’s resilience in an emotionally draining situation. The true standout performance of “Driveways,” though, is by Brian Dennehy. Knowing that this performance was among his last gives every scene he’s in an added melancholic weight, especially his final monologue — a mournful, beautiful reflection on life and the importance of cherishing those close to us.

I don’t have a single flaw to nit-pick. “Driveways” is a near-perfect film, one whose simplistic premise and small-scale storytelling belies an emotional wisdom that the world needs right now. Do yourself a favor and go watch it.

“Driveways” is a drama directed by Andrew Ahn, starring Brian Dennehy, Hong Chau, Lucas Jaye and Christine Ebersole. It is 83 minutes long and is available on Showtime and Video on Demand. Alex’s Grade: A+