UK Release Date: 20th April 2018
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Kathleen Hepburn
Writer: Kathleen Hepburn
Starring: Shirley Henderson, Théodore Pellerin, Nicholas Campbell, Lorne Cardinal, Mary Galloway
Synopsis: A troubled family has to deal with a mother suffering the degenerative effects of Parkinson’s, while her wayward teen son struggles to find his place in the world, while dealing with confusion around his sexuality.
The career of Shirley Henderson has been something of a strange one, whether it’s her supporting work in the Bridget Jones series or playing considerably younger than her age as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movies. It seems she has finally found a movie to match her impressive dramatic talents with Never Steady, Never Still, which is a tragic and complex portrait of the pressures exerted on a family by various factors, from the wayward lack of focus in a teenage son to the Parkinson’s disease that is gradually eroding away the quality of life for Henderson’s frail woman.
It’s a deliberately disjointed and meandering narrative, spread over the course of a year in the life of its central family, set against the backdrop of British Columbia – a harsh, chilly part of northern Canada. Judy (Henderson) has been living with Parkinson’s for many years and has become increasingly reliant on the support of her husband Ed (Nicholas Campbell). Their son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin) is lacking in purpose, so is pressured by his father into getting a job on the oil fields, where he struggles in a macho atmosphere with little room for the men to express their feelings.
Never Steady, Never Still is a real statement of a debut feature from writer-director Kathleen Hepburn. It’s a defiantly patient story that focuses on its performances. It’s a risky strategy, but one that largely works as a result of Henderson’s bravura turn and some convincingly raw work from Pellerin. Henderson is perfect as a woman so frail that she seems to become even wispier with every scene, like a tragically real version of the fading photograph in Back to the Future. One moment, in which she attempts to remove her wedding ring to alleviate pain in her finger, but can’t keep her hands steady enough is utterly heart-breaking, with every failed attempt punctuated by a whimper, like a wounded animal crying out in frustration.
The same loose structure that allows Hepburn to spend time with the more mundane struggles of her characters also scuppers the movie slightly, leading to a lack of focus in its second half. There’s a major narrative turning point at the end of the first act that should pull the story closer together, but instead merely heightens the sense of fractured plot. The screen time is split fairly evenly between the lives of Hepburn and Pellerin, with the latter doing stellar work as a man who doesn’t quite seem to fit into the very traditional, blue-collar world of the oil fields, where his blossoming sexuality is not allowed to thrive.
As a study of either of its two central characters, Never Steady, Never Still could have been masterful. In this form, though, Hepburn has created a movie that’s a little too unwieldy and unfocused to truly feel essential, even as it conjures a tremendous sense of the characters’ chilly isolation. It’s an occasionally compelling, but often frustrating exploration of an unforgiving world that is happy to chew up these people rather than provide them with the help and support they need.
Pop or Poop?
Never Steady, Never Still is a solid portrait of family life in adverse circumstances, helped by two top of the range performances from Shirley Henderson and Théodore Pellerin. However, it’s every inch a debut feature and there’s the nagging sense that a small amount of narrative tightening could have elevated the material into a truly focused tale of struggle and tragedy.
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