“Certain Women” pulls three tales from Maile Meloy’s collection of short stories that are not directly connected but share common themes and emotions. Each segment is a self-contained snapshot within the character’s life of an event that likely became a defining moment for them.
The first story revolves around a successful lawyer, Laura Wells ( Maile Meloy), who is trying to help a man with a worker’s comp settlement. This man, Fuller (Jared Harris), sustained a head injury that left him unable to work, and although his employer was at fault, a pre-existing settlement prevents him from obtaining the funds necessary to pay his medical bills. Repeatedly Fuller asks “What’s our plan? How are we going to get these guys to pay?” while Laura exhaustively counters with “We have no other options. There is nothing we can do!” Fuller nods this off oblivious to her comments. There’s a sense that he wants more than just the money itself, although the hints are subtle. Eventually, Laura sets up a joint meeting with another lawyer. When this man repeats the same thing Laura has been saying for months, Fuller simply says “OK” and leaves. Her first assumption is it only took the words of another Man to convince Fuller, but soon learn that it’s a bit more complex than that as he takes drastic steps to secure the affirmation he seeks.
The next segment gives us a peek into the lives of married couple Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan Lewis (James Le Gros). They’ve purchased land outside of town and have just broke ground on their dream home. To the chagrin of their teenage daughter, most weekends are spent a large semipermanent tent they’ve set up. The tension between the three of them is immediately apparent, although Gina seems to be both the source and the recipient of the negativity. While heading back home for the work week, they stop the home of an old man (Rene Auberjonois) with a pile of stone in his front yard. Gina covets this “original sandstone” and desperately wants to purchase it from him to include in her new home, even though there’s only enough to be used as an accent.
The final story is the most routine of the three and focuses on a lonely young woman named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) who cares for a small horse ranch. One night on a whim she follows a small group of people into what ends up being a local adult education class on student law. The teacher, Beth (Kristen Stewart), eventually appears, a few minutes late. Beth seems exhausted and struggles through the class each night she is there, while the boring students ask questions that reveal them to be simple and selfish people. Jamie sees Jamie as someone special and is curious, almost desperate, to know her better. They share a few late night dinners together as Beth explains how she mistakenly accepted this teaching assignment from the law firm she works at in a slightly larger town 4 hours away.
These stories aren’t interesting due to the plot, they are are engaging because of the nuances of the characters. This is true both of the (excellent) performances and the script itself. The ties that bind these separate narratives are the feelings of emotional isolation and the desire to be truly understood by others. Some of these characters express this is more socially acceptable ways than others. Some sit and stew within their own anxiety while others are proactive in overcoming these feelings, even if they choose to do so in a way that isn’t exactly socially acceptable. A film like this only works if you can identify with at least some of the characters on screen. If you are unable to, it may seem like a pointless film. But if you can pick up on the silent fears, internal battles, and insecurities these women are struggling with it becomes increasingly more fascinating.