Beth Travis ― an elegantly disheveled young lawyer played by Kristen Stewart ― sits in a diner, eating a hamburger. Another much quieter woman sits across from her, looking on with a placid expression, not eating anything herself.
The scene is quotidian. It’s something most people have witnessed or partaken in themselves, sitting casually at a restaurant, eating or watching someone else eat. But its existence on film is a little unsettling, especially when it lingers on minutes longer than we expect it to. Something is ever so slightly amiss.
The scene is part of one of three vignettes that make up Kelly Reichardt’s new movie, “Certain Women.” Stewart shines as Beth, an ambitious new law school grad supplementing her income with a nighttime teaching gig four hours away from her home.
In the portion of the film devoted to her story, a ranch hand sits in on her educational law class in spite of being neither a teacher nor a lawyer herself. She wanders in and is transfixed by the teacher’s poise. After class, she suggests dinner before Beth has to head back home. The next week, the ranch hand rides a horse to the school, offering Beth a strange reprieve from her exhausting schedule. It’s a pleasant, tender moment, but the ranch hand takes the relationship a step too far by trekking to Beth’s distant home. Awkwardness ensues.
These thwarted attempts to connect recur throughout “Certain Women,” which is loosely based on Maile Meloy’s 2009 short story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It.
Reichardt, who’s known for her minimalist, women-centered films, is liberal with her interpretation of the original material. In Meloy’s story, the ranch hand wooing Stewart’s character is a man suffering from polio. By recasting the relationship as one between two women, Reichardt complicates it, making it a story about envy, power and attraction ― and the interplay between the three.
Reichardt sheds light on the polite, harmonious ways we expect women to behave, and how difficult it is for women to reconcile those expectations with positions of power and responsibility.
The film’s other sections are about a woman whose family takes a heap of locally sourced stone from an older man who’s reluctant to let go of it, and a lawyer who was not able to help her client get properly reimbursed for an on-the-job injury. They star Michelle Williams and Laura Dern, respectively.
Williams plays a woman whose desire for a new home for her family ― which she supports financially ― trumps her empathy for a kindly older man, whom she takes advantage of. In Dern’s, again, career-related loyalties complicate the way she treats others. With these narratives, Reichardt sheds light on the polite, harmonious ways we expect women to behave, and how difficult it is for women to reconcile those expectations with positions of power and responsibility.
All of which is to say: in an industry that’s still so male-dominated that statistics present what can feel like an unbridgeable gap, Reichardt is making leaps. Her films handle oft-ignored issues with subtlety, and her quiet approach to filmmaking means the stories and characters take precedence over the issues themselves.
Like her characters, Reichardt asserts her professional beliefs, sometimes at the expense of connection. Some scenes linger gratuitously, for the sake of highlighting the lovely cinematography rather than enhancing the story or the viewers’ experience. But for those unfamiliar with her work, the film is worth watching, if not only because it breezes past the expectations of the Bechdel test, a rare feat for feature-length films.
“Certain Women” is now playing in limited release.