The new drama from director Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff) focuses on three loosely connected stories about women in small-town Montana. In the first, attorney Laura Wells (Laura Dern) tries to help a client get compensation for a work injury, but is drawn into an unexpected hostage situation. In the second, Gina (Michelle Williams) tries to convince a family friend to sell his valuable sandstone, so that she can build a new home with her husband. In the third, a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) creates a strong bond with a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who arrives in town to teach a class.

Certain Women is adapted from three of Maile Meloy’s short stories. This detail should surprise no one who sees Reichardt’s film. Each part of this triptych is more intimately concerned with interiority and character psychology than plot progression. Meanwhile, each chapter is buoyed by the accompanying stories; the characters and their journeys deserve to be compared. The whole of this moving drama – finally released in Toronto seven months after its U.S. art house premiere – is ultimately more than the sum of its (already quite good) parts.

As with her previous films, Reichardt has a precise sense of place. The spare rural settings of each story, set in contrast to a modest Midwest town, help to inform the characters’ feelings and repressions. The director also uses a window motif throughout, as characters gaze, curiously, at a life and position they do not occupy. Reichardt also captures the beauty of a despaired county with striking images, such as a train snaking by the mountains, or a solitary truck driving into an empty field. (Her frequent collaborator, Christopher Blauvelt, is the director of photography.)

Meanwhile, there are winning performances from all involved. Dern is able to communicate both frustration and sympathy in close proximities. Gladstone, a presence at various critics’ circle awards last year, projects an intense vulnerability in her scenes with Stewart without the need of much dialogue. When her character tries to communicate her heartache, one cannot help but watch, transfixed.

Nevertheless, so much of Certain Women is realized with care, its few pacing problems stand out even more. In this critic’s opinion, the second story is a scene or two short, while the final section goes on a bit long. Moreover, Reichardt’s choice to conclude with three brief epilogues related to each main character doesn’t feel right. It would have been more impactful to have these final scenes as the conclusion to the chapters in the order that they were presented. Regardless, these complaints are minor flaws of a major work from an integral American filmmaker.

Is Certain Women opening weekend worthy?

Yes. Certain Women is a frequently masterful character study and a new high for director Kelly Reichardt. Audiences should know that the drama will reward patience, as its sleepy rhythms evoke the isolation of the characters, so one should not expect swift plotting.

Certain Women opens Friday, May 19, 2017 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check their website for more information.

Certain Women Trailer