Starring Shirley Henderson. Rated 14A
Adapted from her own acclaimed short, Never Steady, Never Still is a breakthrough feature debut for Vancouver-based writer-director Kathleen Hepburn. It arrives with a handful of awards from last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, a whopping eight Canadian Screen Award nominations, and a place inside TIFF’s list of the Top 10 Canadian films of 2017.
It’s obvious why. Hepburn’s film boasts mammoth confidence, inching along with often spellbinding effect at a pace that mirrors the physical impairments suffered by Judy (Okja’s Shirley Henderson), a mother in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease. Meanwhile, 19-year-old son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin, Les démons) finds himself in the advanced stages of sexual confusion, made worse when he leaves the family’s Stuart Lake home for a job in the oil patch.
There’s one significant death waiting to happen, but the film’s power derives entirely from small moments with big existential payloads, as when Jamie finds Mom struggling to clean an oven at 4 a.m., or when he has to lift the helpless Judy out of a freezing bath. It’s certainly hard to remember when the luminously cold light of northern Canada was ever captured quite so well (shot by the brilliant Norm Li on 35mm), and Ben Fox’s disconsolate score further embeds us inside Hepburn’s superbly conjured dramatic landscape. Nicholas Campbell is yet another major asset as husband Ed.
So why do I feel that Never Steady, Never Still also tends to be a little turgid, if not suffocatingly tasteful? Furthermore, while U.K. vet Henderson lends the film no small amount of esteem, her breathy chittering in some moments is unforgivably close to ham. Especially in view of the acute realness achieved elsewhere—in a beachfront cribbage game with neighbour Lenny (Arctic Air’s Lorne Cardinal), for instance—or stacked beside Pellerin’s painfully true encounters with a pregnant 17-year-old supermarket clerk (note-perfect Mary Galloway) and a bullying workmate (Hello Destroyer’s Jared Abrahamson, parading his lock on violent small-town boneheads).
Perhaps time will change these perceptions. Like The Grey Fox, My American Cousin, or any other of B.C.’s small handful of truly landmark films, Never Steady, Never Still is never not going to be here.