Film & TV

Toronto Film Festival: Laura Dern and Michelle Williams Warm Certain Women's Chilly North

Our critic April Wolfe is filing updates all week from the Toronto International Film Festival.

When a quiet film is set outside of the big cities — New York, L.A., Chicago — it’s often called a “slice of life.” But that’s ultimately a condescending designation; to the millions of people residing on the prairies and in the small towns dotting the throughways, it is simply life, with a capital “L.” In the subtle and affecting Certain Women (based on stories by Maile Meloy), and following Meek's Cutoff and Night Moves, Kelly Reichardt — with her usual attention to the humanity among the mundane and absurd — again honors those who are too busy just getting on to care about big-city trivialities. Certain Women is a kind, loving and deeply moving portrait of big-hearted, small-town people.

Laura Dern is hilarious as Laura Wells, a lawyer who can’t shake her deluded but sympathetic client Fuller (Jared Harris). Fuller invades Laura’s personal boundaries, sobbing and chattering endlessly in her car during the long drive from Billings to Livingston, Montana. With hesitant, almost grimacing smiles, Laura lets herself get caught up in his increasingly out-of-control drama, culminating in an off-kilter hostage situation that suggests a toned-down Coen Brothers flick.

Frequent Reichardt muse Michelle Williams is Gina Lewis, a homesteading gentrifier driven to build an “authentic” house with the sandstone rubble of her elderly, distant neighbor Albert (Rene Auberjonois). With just a few whittled-down words, Reichardt moves these characters into tricky and uncomfortable opposition: Old vs. New.

The breakout star here is actress Lily Gladstone. Her turn as Jamie — a lonely ranch hand tending to some horses through the long, bitter winter — is an overwhelming heartbreaker. In bulky Carhartts and flannel, Jamie is nervous and awkward, trying her best to sit still and go unnoticed in a mostly empty night-school law class she's in because she spotted people filing into the building and followed them, only to be charmed by a similarly awkward instructor, Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). Eager to connect, she sweetly tries to court the oblivious teacher with after-class trips to the diner, but she’s too shy to say much, and when she does, every word she utters sounds as if she's swallowing either a laugh or a cry. Gladstone’s face, even at rest, is absorbing, and if she doesn’t get another worthy role soon, it would be a travesty.

The film swings back and forth on the emotional pendulum. Majestic, snow-covered mountains hover in the frame behind these characters as they navigate their relentless jobs and dead-end or unrequited love affairs, finding humor where they can. In a derelict mall, a female Army recruiter watches the local Native tribes gathered to dance in their traditional garb — with moments like this, there is never a feeling of artifice or commentary, just the tenderness of people connecting in the only ways they know how. Reichardt masterfully constructs a nostalgia for simpler times while revealing the oppressive loneliness of cold, remote places.