'Certain Women' is a poignant study of ordinary lives (R)

Kelly Reichardt is an indie director who makes small, finely observed, minimalist pictures about ordinary women and men.

Have you read a more dismissive, condescending sentence?

That’s how critics pigeonhole people who work outside the Hollywood machine.

The truth is, Reichardt is a great filmmaker, anyway you slice it. Her pictures seem odd, quaint, and quirky to viewers raised on a diet of blockbusters. And that’s a shame.

The Miami native made her debut with 1994’s “River of Grass,” a spare crime thriller about an unhappy homemaker (Lisa Bowman) who all but dismantles her life in an act of drunken bravado.

Successive films have been even more pared down, including “Wendy and Lucy,” a quietly heartbreaking piece starring Michelle Williams as a single woman stranded without funds in a strange city, who loses her one friend, her dog, Lucy.

Reichardt’s seventh feature, “Certain Women,” has even less of what we’d call drama, external conflict. Based on a collection of short stories by Montana author Maile Meloy, the film offers silhouettes, if not full portraits, of three Montana women as they go about the daily grind of living their lives.

Laura Dern stars in the first — and most eventful — story as Laura Wells, a small-time lawyer who has made the big mistake of getting emotionally involved in one of her cases. Jared Harris (“Mad Men”) is terrific as the client, a constantly complaining, passive-aggressive neurotic who is suing his employer after suffering an on-site injury. He’s so desperate, he tries to take his old boss hostage. The episode ends with a surreal, comic standoff as Laura tries to talk him down.

The second piece is the least successful. Michelle Williams and James Le Gros star as Gina and Ryan Lewis, a quietly unhappy couple from the city who are out in the Montana wilds to build a vacation home — by hand.

Gina insists they use only authentic, ancient materials. The segment has them negotiate to buy a pile of sandstone from an aging farmer.

The third sequence is achingly beautiful and strange. Newcomer Lily Gladstone, a recent college graduate who grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, plays Jamie, a ranch hand at a small stable hired to watch the horses over the winter.

An awkward and lonely soul, she goes about her chores alone, eats alone and sleeps alone.

When she hears there’s a night class at the local high school, she rushes over. And she’s so jazzed by the teacher, she stays, even after finding out it’s a course for certified teachers about laws pertaining to kids.

Kristen Stewart is wonderful as the teacher, a recent law school graduate so caught up in her own life that she doesn’t see Jamie’s desperate need.

Set against the backdrop of Montana’s stunning wilderness, “Certain Women” portrays women at work and women in desire with the quiet confidence, simplicity, and directness of a true artist.

Cast: Laura Dern, James Le Gros, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Jared Harris, Lily Gladstone.

Writer-director: Kelly Reichardt. Based on the short stories by Maile Meloy.

An IFC Films release. Running time: 107 minutes. Vulgar language. In Miami-Dade: Cosford Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque, Tower; in Broward: Gateway.

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