Unrecognized Greatness: The Best Female Supporting Role of 2016 You Probably Didn’t See
Lily Gladstone in 'Certain Women' gives a remarkable performance.
Certain Women is a 2016 drama telling the story of women in Montana whose lives loosely connect. A quite, deeply affecting experience, it features one of the best unsung performances of the year.
In my review of Certain Women, I mentioned the desperation of the women in this deeply moving film that while purposefully paced and intently unsealed, is a fascinating experience. It stars an impressive list of names, including Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart, of whom all are very strong, with a plot revolving around a short time in the life of each and how in minor but affecting ways, they are tenuously attached.
You can read about the other stories in the review, but it’s the one concerning Stewart’s character that is the most affecting. She plays Elizabeth Travis, a young lawyer teaching a night class for teachers at an elementary school in small town Belfry, Montana, about state educational law, though it’s her first time and she’s not particularly engaged by the ordeal, especially since the drive is four hours one way from where she lives.
Meanwhile, just outside of Belfry is Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a ranch hand living in complete isolation during the winter as she tends to horses and maintains a farm in the off season, an enthusiastic dog her only companion. She drives into Belfry one evening and desperate for human contact, notices adults entering the school and so follows, taking a seat in the back of the classroom, simply interested in being around, but not interacting with, other people.
When Elizabeth enters the room, her vulnerability and frailness obvious, something sparks within Jamie, and she spends the class in silence, taken by the experience. Afterwards, she invites Elizabeth to join her for a meal at the nearby diner, which she accepts, a sense of gladness in herself about some positive contact. They talk lightly and a routine sets in where the two meet after each class. One time, Jamie even rides a horse into town to give Elizabeth a ride. There seems a bond. And yet one night, Jamie comes to class and discovers that Elizabeth has been permanently replaced, and so moved by the disruption, immediately leaves the class and gets behind the wheel of her pickup and heads for Livingston, where she knows Elizabeth lives.
I’m going to spoil a portion the film at this point, so if you haven’t seen the movie, please be warned.
Jamie completes the four-hour drive and spends the night in her truck cab and in the morning chill, drives about town knocking on law offices in search of Elizabeth (at one point crossing paths with Laura Dern’s character). Eventually she learns where Elizabeth works and, filled with expectation, approaches her outside her building. What she gets though is not the reception she anticipated and rejected by Elizabeth, abruptly leaves, climbing back into her truck and driving away.
I’ll get to Gladestone’s performance in just a second, but it must be noted how deeply affecting director Kelly Reichardt handles this moment. That drive is a full two minutes and thirty-five seconds, with the camera, mounted on the truck hood, kept tightly framed on Gladstone’s face in an unbroken long take. It’s monumentally compelling.
Jamie pulls away from Elizabeth, with a devastating last look to her as she enters the law firm, and then leaves town. We watch as she makes her way through a few intersections, through underpasses and out on the main stretch of open road back to Belfry. There’s no dialogue and only the faintest melancholy strings underlying the droning tones of her old truck motor. After those aching few minutes pass, Jamie is seen drifting a sleep at the wheel, her foot sliding off the gas pedal and her truck slipping off the road, through a barbed wire fence and coming to stop in a dry field. For a long while, we don’t know her fate.
Metaphorically, the image is powerfully, with a girl breaking through a barrier that had long kept her trapped but leaving her still isolated on the other side. It’s a sublimely-directed moment and very affecting, made all the more so by a seismic yet ironically reserved performance from Gladstone who is torturously moving in the part.
She has few lines throughout, but instead grants Jamie tremendous presence in scenes on the farm where she spends the cold days amid the frozen corrals and fields and nights in the dark inside, staring up at the ceiling. Without a single word, we feel her loneliness and yet she never weighs it down with obvious tropes. She is proud of her work, content with her lot, but needing the same warmth we all so desperately long to have.
She finds that, at least in potential, with Elizabeth, and in her eyes, so full of expectation, thinks it reciprocated. Gladstone however, never let’s this fall into our own expectations, shaped by countless films that have taken romantic dismissal to almost absurd levels of trauma, which, admittedly, sometimes work very well. Instead, Gladestone remains understated, portraying Jamie as a young woman of dignity who is feeling rejection, yes, perhaps for the first time, but more importantly, as its own expectation.
What Gladstone does in that truck as she drives Jamie away from this crushing moment is far removed from the gushing, weeping, emotional release we might think natural, but instead an internal battle that is so powerful conveyed on Gladstone’s face, it is equally affecting and we watch ourselves, stripped of our won words, lost in memories of our own and projecting what she must be feeling. That’s the real power of this moment, it’s participatory resonance, where Reichardt forces the viewer to become absorbed in what Jamie is going through rather than be detached from it. With Gladstone’s remarkable work, it is one of the best supporting performances of the year.