• by Wes Singleton

Certain Women, B-

Rated R, 107 minutes

The downbeat but affecting new drama "Certain Women," written and directed by Kelly Reichardt of "Night Moves" and "Wendy and Lucy" explores the challenges and opportunities of women in rural America. While all three leads are solid, it's a newcomer in her debut film performance who gives the most memorable turn here.

Three strong-willed women strive to forge their own paths amidst the wide-open plains of Montana: a lawyer (Laura Dern) who finds herself contending with both office sexism and a hostage situation; a wife and mother (Michelle Williams) whose determination to build her dream home puts her at odds with the men in her life; and a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who forms an ambiguous bond with a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone).

Reichardt's well-acted drama "Certain Women" is three stories very loosely connected - so low-key you may miss the connections if you're not paying attention - isn't all that inspiring or upbeat but a film that strives to capture the small victories for feminism in America, an effort that's mostly successful for Reichardt and company.

The deliberate, slow pacing is felt in the Montana-set and filmed "Women," especially in its first two stories, and its tone feels a little grayish and even depressing at times. Dern, as the lawyer facing considerable challenges with a client ("Fringe's" Jared Harris) who's gone off the rails, and a bossy Williams, who knows what she wants as she's trying to build her dream home, yet alienating most of her loved ones. On that note, there's a loose connection (and no plot spoilers) here that I wish Reichardt had explored more, and is so nonchalantly introduced in the opening and never mentioned again, it seems to short-change the story of what could've been.

The last story is the best of the three, as it deals with the relationship between Stewart's young lawyer and Gladstone's lonely ranch hand, giving the film some light and hope from the draggy first two acts. Newcomer Gladstone, a native Montanan and Native American in her feature film debut, is the real discovery here in a breakout turn; she turns from dark to light, burgeoning with a luminous, unrequited hope, as well as blurring lines between gay and transgender. Her face brings out what the script doesn't say, and watch her emotions as she begins the final, sad trek home, with heart broken.

Without the fresh-faced Gladstone and an energetic Harris, stealing scenes as Dern's imbalanced client, "Certain Women" would be much more of a drag as it follows these women around in the American West. Gladstone is the one to watch, and it says something that in a field of veteran actresses, it's the newcomer who's the real bright spot.

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