Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)

Montana’s dramatic big sky country looms in the windshields of Certain Women, as its characters navigate long, silent roadways of doubt, self-reliance, and yearning.

Laura Dern begins this melancholy triptych of barely linked stories as Laura, a small-town lawyer whose married lover appears to be losing interest. We are given no clue whether this really has much significance in her life. Meanwhile, one of her clients – whom she has shepherded through eight months of miserable frustration over his worker’s compensation claim – finally succumbs to his head injury and starts taking hostages. Now Laura, in her poignant, bumbling way, has to enter the building and talk him down.

Gina (a steely Michelle Williams) covets the sandstone blocks that have languished on an elderly neighbor’s property for ages. She intends to use them in the dream house she’s building for her easygoing husband and sulky teen daughter. Clearly in charge, not only of the family business but every other aspect of their lives, still Gina gives tiny, subtle hints of pain at every needling jab from her passive-aggressive family. The stone becomes a metaphor for this woman’s disillusioned existence, her greatest strength wedded to her greatest weakness, beautiful and unyielding.

Shy Jamie (Lily Gladstone) follows the daily rhythms of ranch life, feeding the horses and mucking out stalls, with an irrepressible Corgi dog bustling in her wake (this is, after all, a Kelly Reichardt film). Until one day her solitude is suddenly lit from within, transformed by her night school teacher, Beth (Kristen Stewart). That these two young women have nothing in common and can’t even sustain a brief conversation makes no difference to Jamie’s impossible yearning. In a revelatory performance, Gladstone manages to make Jamie’s whole being tremble whenever Beth enters the classroom. We’re swept along by this isolated, nearly mute girl who flatly confesses, “I don’t know anybody.” We root for her against all odds, and yet, due to Reichardt’s absolute mastery of naturalistic tone and mood, we end up accepting the inevitable, the real. While still continuing to yearn.

Christopher Blauvelt’s haunting cinematography captures the splendor and bleak vastness of Montana’s northern reaches. Reichardt’s low-key script, adapted from several stories by Maile Meloy, constantly surprises by refusing to plot the expected course – defusing the drama while intensifying a slow build of emotion. Ensemble performances are all stellar, with Lily Gladstone as the standout. In Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt has crafted one of the saddest, loveliest, most evocative films of the year.