Never Steady, Never Still

 

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A truthful drama so uncompromising that it is a challenge for the viewer.

 

Never Steady, Never Still

  

After seeing this debut feature from writer/director Kathleen Hepburn, I read the press notes which revealed that Hepburn’s mother when still in her forties was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This came as no surprise since it explains why the central character in Hepburn’s film, Judy played by Shirley Henderson, is herself in this situation. By portraying a woman in this condition showing remarkable strength and determination, Hepburn not only pays homage to her mother but has the chance to express what she describes as all that remains unsaid in such circumstances.

 

It is to be hoped, therefore, that creating Never Steady, Never Still provided self-therapy for Hepburn as well as bringing her critical praise. Yet I cannot be the only audience member who will find her film an exceptionally bleak experience. Something of that is bound to emerge when a film puts a debilitating illness at its centre, but Hepburn chooses to add to it. Technically we have the decision to use a sombre colour palette that fills the screen space (the film is in ’Scope) and to feature a location, the northern rural areas of British Columbia, that is itself unusually gloomy. In terms of the writing, Hepburn opts to have Judy’s loving husband, Ed (Nicholas Campbell), die of a heart attack. Consequently, much of the film revolves around Judy and her 19-year-old son, Jamie (Théodore Pellerin), who has left home to take up work in the oil fields. The fact that he is bullied by his workmates there, loses a best friend who moves away and is having a troubled adolescence with doubts regarding his sexuality means that in a different way his experiences are as challenging as his mother’s.

 

Quite late on, when Jamie returns home on a visit, a local girl, Kaly (Mary Galloway), has an influence on both Judy and Jamie but, even though her outlook is positive, she too has a crisis to face. There’s no doubt that Never Steady, Never Still is a deeply honest work and very well acted. However, the slow pacing and lack of dramatic momentum place the film on the margins of minimalism. Pellerin and Galloway bring out those moments that have a truthful intimacy, and there is a beautifully judged scene involving talk about childbirth between Judy and Kaly. But Henderson’s dedicated performance cannot hide the fact that, despite Judy’s courage, the role is largely confined to the depiction of Parkinson’s. Sometimes a film about somebody braving life with a disability can be uplifting and a comfort to viewers who are in a comparable situation or who are close to somebody who is. But, while Hepburn resolutely refuses to let her film become emotionally manipulative, her integrity results in a work that seems overwhelmingly downbeat. It would be pleasing to believe that many viewers will respond differently, but I can’t escape my feeling that my comment above about this film being "exceptionally bleak" was something of an understatement.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Shirley Henderson, Théodore Pellerin, Mary Galloway, Nicholas Campbell, Lorne Cardinal, Jared Abrahamson, Jonathan Whitesell, Beverley Elliott, Shawn Owen Roberts, Hugo Ateo, Eric Keenleyside.

 

Dir Kathleen Hepburn, Pro Tyler Hagan and James Brown, Screenplay Kathleen Hepburn, Ph Norm Li, Pro Des Liz Cairns and Sophie Jarvis, Ed Simone Smith, Music Ben Fox, Costumes Ariana Preece and Mia Fiddis.

 

Experimental Forest Films/Christie Street Creative/Telefilm Canada-Thunderbird Releasing.
112 mins. Canada. 2017. Rel: 20 April 2018. Cert. 15.