By Bill Wine

By Bill Wine

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Proof that you can be certain of your respect for a movie’s intentions while being equally certain that you’re dissatisfied with the results comes to us in the form of Certain Women.

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This femme-centric drama looks in on the intersecting lives of three women in modern-day small-town America – in and around Livingston, Montana, to be specific.

Kristen Stewart plays Beth, a young lawyer just starting her career who must travel eight hours round-trip to teach a law class to a small group of teachers, when one of her lonely, isolated students (Lily Gladstone) becomes more or less romantically obsessed with her.

Michelle Williams plays Gina, a wife, mother, and business owner who, along with her husband (James Le Gros), are trying to talk an elderly neighbor (Rene Auberjonois) into selling them some stones on his property that she wants for the home she’s building.

And Laura Dern plays Laura, a lawyer who has an unhappy and unlucky client (Jared Harris) who, against her objections, wants to sue an employer from whom he has already accepted a settlement after being injured on the job.

The three stories are only tangentially related, but they overlap and are intercut throughout the film.

There’s nothing necessarily off-putting about the characters or subject matter here, but they do not exactly demand our – or the film’s — attention.

That said, without a more aggressive and less low-key directorial approach, the particular problems under the microscope can seem inconsequential and far too much footage can seem like filler.

The writer and director of Certain Women is Kelly Reichardt, who has also directed River of Grass, Ode, Old Joy, and Night Moves, but is probably best known for her two most recent films,Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, both of which featured Ms. Williams.

Reichardt’s screenplay, based on short stories by Maile Meloy, serves to do what all her films do: tell quiet stories set in western America about ordinary working-class lives from an independent woman’s point of view.

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While it’s true that Hollywood’s louder, more bombastic, attention-deficit-indulging attractions to some degree spoil us for the more modest aims and pleasures of Reichardt’s films, it’s nonetheless obvious that the lack of narrative thrust and the lower stakes involved often fail to compel us – even when they’re presented with admirable artistic skill and craft.

That’s certainly the case with Certain Women, which has little wrong with it but little captivatingly right with it as well.

That is, we viewers can deal with a minimal attempt at escapism and a grounded anecdotal approach, but mundane problems presented without more cinematic panache can seem, well, inconsequential.

Capturing reality is to be applauded, but without at least a measure of heightened reality on the menu, we’re not exactly sure why we’re sitting there, watching.
Put another way: this may be moviemaking poetry instead of prose, but the film has still got to qualify as drama.

With as subdued a style as is on display in Certain Women, we’re too quick to be reminded that if a director captures and conveys too much of reality, the film ends up foisting the boring aspects of it on us – which we often escape by going to the movies — as well.

And the sad truth is that for every scene that offers up something in the way of electricity, there are two or three scenes that just lie there like beached whales.

Similarly, while Reichardt’s primary cast, her lead trio, is fine on a technical level, and fit in nicely to the director’s overall vision, and we appreciate our familiarity with them, as we watch them and recall their performances in previous, more-dynamic roles, we wish they had been allowed to let loose here just a bit.

Certainly seems like three assets wasted and an opportunity lost.

But, then, that’s not what the film traffics in.

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So we’ll heighten 2 stars out of 4 for Certain Women, which deserves both our respect and our criticism.