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By T.T. Stern-Enzi


Rating: R; Grade: A

Over 20 years ago in the film “Short Cuts,” Robert Altman provided a visual roadmap through a messy suburban landscape from the pen of writer Raymond Carver. As a bit of a Carver acolyte, I found Altman’s re-imaginings fascinating because, while the basic elemental narrative DNA made the transition from page to screen, so much of the moving frames belonged exclusively to Altman and his approach—capturing the cluttered cacophony of sound and fury of life. The stories seemed to pile up on top of themselves, in the spirit of Altman’s overcrowding of people and overlapping of conversations in those single takes that most other directors would have blocked out into a multitude of mini-scenes.

None of us—the fans of Carver or Altman—could be mad about the adaptation; in fact, Altman earned a Best Director nod for his effort. There was a certain genius at work in this Vulcan mind melding of styles. Imagine Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in a Disney body-switching comedy where the two inhabit the body of a teenage girl on the night of the big dance just as she’s about to be crowned prom queen. You know that, somehow, things will work out for the best, but along the way, a bunch of craziness will ensue.

But sometimes, even in films, it’s better to slow things down, to expand time, space, and the frame, to watch what happens rather than wait for the next big reactionary moment. Altman teased us with fleeting glimpses of the everyday, but he also threw in full frontal nudity—in the form of both Julianne Moore and Huey Lewis—for a healthy bit of shock and awe. See, he seemed to say, look at what lies beneath all of that suburban ennui.

Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy & Lucy”), another indie writer-director also quite taken with short story and novel adaptations, pursues a decidedly different angle. In her latest release, “Certain Women,” a triptych based on a collection of stories from Maile Meloy, she shies away from plot and the noise of such naked displays, instead focusing attention on the routines and the chores, the details of living that define characters and lives.

I spoke with Reichardt during my stint at the Toronto International Film Festival, following the press screening of “Certain Women,” and our chat reflected this interest of hers. Before delving into the film, we talked about the state of the world, the ongoing political debate, but without giving in to the bombast and recrimination of rhetoric and the soon-to-be forgotten soundbites of the news cycle.

It was easy to slip back into the film, which starts with Laura Wells (Laura Dern), a small-town lawyer in the expanse of flyover America, babysitting a client (Jared Harris) with too much time on his idle hands, while engaged in an extra-marital affair with a feckless husband (James Le Gros) that barely provides a lunchtime diversion. Laura sees that her life is going nowhere and ponders aloud how difficult it is to be a woman in her situation. Her client acts out, drawing police attention, her fling falls flat, and her life, as presented, just goes on down that proverbial road without end.

The second frame offers up Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), the wife of the cheating husband, seeking to close a deal that will get her one step closer to building the house of her dreams. She’s driven—a career woman always on the run, with a husband and daughter who have no interest in what matters to her. What emerges in her portrait is the sense that her ambition and wants, especially in middle America, somehow make her less of a woman/mother, or at least the kind of woman that anyone, stuck in the place with her, could ever understand or appreciate.

The final story contrasts the lives of two women—a new lawyer named Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) and a horse tender named Jamie (Lily Gladstone)—whose paths briefly and powerfully intersect over the course of a few evenings, when Beth teaches a community seminar that Jamie attends. Jamie has no need for legal aid, but finds herself taken with Beth, so much so that she steps out of her shell and routine to forge what she hopes will be a lasting connection of some sort.

“Certain Women” exposes what we might like to say is hidden for all to see, but the truth is nothing about these women is a secret. These characters, much like all of us, live through moments that tend to be ignored. Some of those instances are quiet and full of desperation, while others are merely the daily interactions and exchanges that rarely, if ever, garner the kind of attention Reichardt bestows on them. Words and deeds truly and certainly mean something more in these frames.