Kathleen Hepburn’s feature debut stars Shirley Henderson as a mother coping with Parkinson’s disease.
One of several breakthrough indies of late to have started life as a short film, Kathleen Hepburn’s Never Steady, Never Still goes to a place where life is not easy, then seeks out those who have it tougher than others. Bleak but sometimes beautiful, the performance-driven feature debut is meatier than its slender plot might suggest, with a strong sense of place and an unsentimental frankness about conditions many filmmakers would milk for sympathy.
Shirley Henderson plays Judy, a fiftysomething mother whose voice — heard in voiceover before we see her face — suggests a little girl reading a weary adult’s lines: “my first child died inside me…death is a gift from God.” Judy has lived with Parkinson’s disease for years, and is part of a Parkinson’s community that is surprisingly large for this part of British Columbia; it seems toxic runoff from a now-defunct mill may have caused a local cluster. Judy’s husband Ed (Nicholas Campbell) notes the tidy circle here — he’s using all the income he earned at the mill to pay for meds to assuage an illness the mill created. But that bitter line is the picture’s loudest acknowledgement of class concerns here, and when Judy goes to meetings of her neighbors with the disease, it’s to share coping strategies, not to plan political or legal action.
Judy and Ed have one child, 19 year-old Jamie (Theodore Pellerin), whose local job options are so slim Ed pushes him toward work on a far-off oil rig. The quiet, unassertive kid is ill-suited to the macho atmosphere and physical demands out there — in a Terrence Malick-y bit of VO, we hear him meditate on childhood memories as he does his job — but he slogs through until he is called home: Ed has been killed by a heart attack.
With the exception of occasional writerly voiceovers, Hepburn maintains an observational approach to her characters, watching Judy as she shakes her way through daily chores and Jaime as he copes with loneliness. Even Jaime’s discovery of a packet of cocaine serves only indirectly as a plot device, prompting him to leave his work site when he otherwise mightn’t have mustered the will. Their lives may be quietly miserable, acknowledging that many of us endure life more often than we live it, but the beauty Hepburn finds in her northwestern setting tempers that message somewhat.
In its final half hour, the script inches toward melodrama, watching as Jamie makes an awkward attempt to romance a local girl, mindless of the consequences this distraction might have for his mother. Instead of feeling cheap, the sequence is the most captivating stretch of the film, making us briefly feel that we’re living these lives instead of just bearing witness to them.
Production companies: Christie Street Creative, Experimental Forest Films
Cast: Shirley Henderson, Theodore Pellerin, Mary Galloway, Nicholas Campbell
Director-Screenwriter: Kathleen Hepburn
Producers: James Brown, Tyler Hagan
Executive producers: Lori Lozinski, Carol Whiteman
Director of photography: Norm Li
Production designers: Liz Cairns, Sophie Jarvis
Costume designers: Mia Fiddis, Ariana Preece
Editor: Simone Smith
Composer: Ben Fox
Casting directors: Kara Eide, Kris Woz