Edinburgh International Film Festival reviews: Showing Up | Past Lives | Silent Roar

Our film critic Alistair Harkness reviews a low-key character study infused with hard-won joy, a bittersweet ‘what if?’ rumination set over 24 years, and a disappointing debut.

Showing Up ****

Past Lives ****

Silent Roar **

A movie about artists doing the work of artists, Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up is as finely wrought as the figurines its protagonist spends most of the film trying to complete. Which is to say, it’s delicate and unassuming, and when it eventually comes together, it packs a subtle emotional punch — the way art you sometimes can’t explain often does.

Making its UK debut at the festival on Tuesday, it stars Michelle Williams as Lizzy, a sculptor preparing for a small show in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. The city itself is positively fizzing with creative energy, though Lizzy is more reserved and controlled in her own art.

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The opening credits show her ceramic sculptures in the planning stages: she’s got dozens of meticulous sketches and paintings pinned to her studio wall. When we later see her working, she’s frequently poised over her desk, altering and adjusting her textured clay figures to ensure they match up.

Lizzy also has an abrasive manner around others, though not in the self-important, egotistical way generally found in movies about artists. She just has a lot going on. A day job and various high-maintenance family members make demands on her time when she really needs to focus on her work.

Showing UpShowing Up
Showing Up

The lack of hot water in her apartment, meanwhile, has become a constant source of ire, not just because she can’t take a shower, but because her landlord-slash-neighbour (played by Hong Chau) is a fellow artist whose ability to submit herself to her work is a stark reminder to Lizzy of her inability to do the same.

In the grand scheme of things, all of this might seem like nothing, but Reichardt has built a career out using the mundane minutia of everyday life to create quietly compelling characters that movies often ignore or keep on the fringes. Here we get a sense that Lizzy’s practice is helping her keep the chaos of her life in check, but her exactitude might also be holding her back creatively. When one of her pieces is damaged in the kiln, she’s not sure if it might not actually be better.

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Reichardt plays around with these ideas, letting them percolate in the background without having her characters make declarative statements about what makes good art. As the title suggests, a lot of being an artist is just showing up and doing the work — but doing it in a way that makes sense for the artist.

What little plot there is (Reichardt doesn’t really do plot) takes shape around an injured pigeon that finds its way into Lizzy’s studio. Despite her annoyance, she can’t help but look after it. The same goes for her family and friends. As hard work as they can sometimes be (especially her bipolar brother, wonderfully played by John Magaro), she can’t shut herself off from them. She’s not a carefree artist in this way; she’s an artist who cares deeply.

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It’s this that gives her life meaning and ultimately gives her work meaning too. Williams — working with Reichardt for the fourth time — may never crack a smile, but when this unspoken realisation dawns on Lizzy, it infuses this low-key film with hard-won joy.

The recent trend in blockbuster cinema for movies set in multiverses is all very well, but the ability to explore every road not travelled doesn’t half diminish the pang of regret that’s been an abiding principle of every unrequited love story from Brief Encounter to In the Mood for Love to Before Sunset.

In Celine Song’s exquisite debut Past Lives (screening at the festival this weekend), the ‘what if?’ question that fuels these stories is once again left hanging. This is a film that wants to give us plenty of pang for our buck.

Set over a whopping 24 years, it revolves around Nora (Greta Lee), a New York-based playwright whose intermittent encounters with her childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) have complicated both of their lives in imperceptible yet far-reaching ways.

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We first get to know them as kids in Seoul, where Hae Sung knew Nora by her Korean name, Na Young. Their friendly teasing masks feelings that their 12-year-old selves don’t yet know how to process, but on their first and only chaperoned date, Hae Sun learns Na Young’s family are emigrating to Canada and just like that, they part ways — first love thwarted before it’s had a chance to blossom.

If kids are supposed to be resilient and get over things, though, no one tells Hae Sung. 12 years later he tracks her down online and Nora, who hasn’t thought about him in years, is intrigued enough to reconnect on Facebook. Her heart skips a beat when they talk and Song and her actors do a remarkable job of creating romantic tension as this tentative relationship plays out across different time zones via glitchy Skype calls and text messages.

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When a real-world meeting keeps being deferred (mainly by Hae Sung, who perhaps fears whatever’s happening between them can’t possibly live up to how he’s played this out in his head), Nora tells him she “wants to stop talking for a while” and, boom, another 12 years pass.

What follows as the inevitable meet-up occurs (we know from the enigmatic opening scene it’s going to happen) is a bittersweet, but also philosophical and generous exploration of the ways in which life complicates not just matters of the heart, but matters of identity.

Nora’s now married and happy; her American husband (John Magaro again) is learning Korean. But Hae Sung’s arrival in New York on a business trip opens up complicated feelings about her homeland and her own place in the world. As she guides him round New York like a tour guide, the sense of what might have been had she not left South Korea when she did is palpable; the ache throbs like a phantom limb, the pang evident in everything they don’t say to each other.

Hopes were high for this year’s opening night film Silent Roar. Sadly, this debut feature from Scottish filmmaker Johnny Barrington — which just had its world premiere and has more screenings this weekend — is as confused as its main character Dondo: a jaunty teenage surfer searching for meaning after the death of his father, but finding instead a pervy priest, a trio of cosmic surfers and a cool-girl classmate fixated on whether or not God has genitalia.

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Though it’s supposed to be a somewhat cockeyed look at the grieving process, the end result is a weird, messy, nonsensical hodgepodge of ideas that don’t come off at all. It veers wildly between the puerility of a gross-out teen sex comedy and some kind of sincere exploration of religiosity, with the bewildered Dondo (played by newcomer Louis McCartney) caught in the middle.

Part of the problem is that the film, which is set on the Isle of Lewis, has neither the outré comic chops to pull off the former (it frequently plays like a tiresome knock-off of producer Chris Young’s The Inbetweeners Movie), nor the gravitas to achieve the latter.

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Some shaky accents and shakier performances don’t help. And though the surf scenes have an intriguingly abstract quality, all the accompanying spiritual hooey is too vague and inconsistently rendered to be in anyway meaningful. What a shame.

Showing Up screens on 22 & 23 August; Past Lives screens on 20 & 21 August; Silent Roar screens on 19 August. For tickets and information visit: www.eif.co.uk/edinburgh-international-film-festival