What at first feels like a small story of sentimental family struggles set amongst a northern BC backdrop (the film was shot in Fort St. James) gradually unspools with painterly precision into a naturalistic, sensual, and considerably-sized poetic canvas in Never Steady, Never Still, the assured directorial debut from Kathleen Hepburn.
An instantly gripping film, it’s buoyed by an astonishing, career-best performance from Shirley Henderson (Trainspotting, Okja) as Judy, a Parkinson’s afflicted woman, recently widowed, raising a teenage son named Jamie, who’s brilliantly portrayed by the rising young star Théodore Pellerin (It’s Only the End of the World).
Hepburn, who also wrote the screenplay, shows a fondness for neo-realism, with a wealth of handheld shots, often uncomfortable closeups, elements of kitchen sink melodrama –– great secondary performances from the likes of Nicholas Campbell and Mary Galloway make any soap opera elements utterly convincing –– and sequences where the bucolic backgrounds and wintry landscapes seem to obsess and overwhelm the characters. It all makes for marvellous melancholy.
The “A” story of Never Steady, Never Still is Judy’s matriarch as she grapples with the grief of losing her husband, worrying about her conflicted son, and coping with her ever-worsening Parkinson’s, and it’s an alternately downcast and fittingly encouraging affair.
There’s no shortage of relatable moments and revealing truths, and Henderson’s portrayal is certainly a feat of impressive and imposing strength, but it also must be said that the film’s “B” story concerning Judy’s struggling son, Jamie, also carries a passionate and perturbing burden that’s every bit as compelling. As Jamie comes to terms with the loss of his dad, and the degeneration of his mother’s mental and physical health, he also must understand his own sexual confusion, contend with challenges at his often brutal workplace on the northern oil fields, and not lose himself along the way while he’s at it.
There’s a recurring tableau involving characters, often Judy or her son, seen in silhouette, that communicates a certain sad poetry that gains in resonance each time we see it. Coupled with the often persisting sound of lapping waves or desolate winds, Hepburn proves herself to be something of an auteur, presenting effectual imagery and sound design, revealing moments that ache and echo, and linger wondrously in the mind long afterwards.
Never Steady, Never Still takes a brave and heartbreaking look at a number of provocative and taboo topics including grief work, homosexuality, promiscuity, and suicide, and handles it all with morality and aplomb. At times the flow of the film is passive and idly paced, but on its own terms it also does a slow dance that’s terribly close to perfection. Don’t miss it.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.