VOD film review: Never Steady, Never Still
Matthew Turner | On 20, Apr 2018
Director: Kathleen Hepburn
Cast: Shirley Henderson, Théodore Pellerin, Nicholas Campbell, Mary Galloway
Watch Never Steady, Never Still online in the UK: MUBI UK / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Sky Store
Canadian writer-director Kathleen Hepburn adapts her award-winning 2015 short for this accomplished and touching indie drama that explores a variety of issues through its central mother-son relationship.
Set in present-day British Columbia, the film stars Britain’s own Shirley Henderson as Judy, a 50-something woman who’s lived with Parkinson’s disease for 19 of her 23 years of marriage to kindly, big-hearted Ed (Nicholas Campbell). After a sudden tragedy, Judy struggles to cope as her condition worsens.
Meanwhile, Ed and Judy’s teenage son, Jamie (Théodore Pellerin), faces his own problems when his parents send him off to work in the snowy oil fields of Alberta. Bullied in his new ultra-macho environment and struggling with his sexuality, Jamie is forced to face his responsibilities when he returns home to visit Judy after their loss.
Henderson delivers a career-best performance as Judy, turning in an unfussy, quietly-getting-on-with-life portrayal that’s a far cry from the Oscar-bait histrionics we often associate with Hollywood disability dramas. To that end, it’s a finely detailed turn that’s often heartbreaking to watch, where every button presents an uphill struggle and the simple act of getting ready for bed is an agonising, drawn-out ordeal. (One of the film’s trailers cleverly featured just this simple scene, which unfolds with Henderson’s back to the camera.)
Pellerin is superb as Jamie, and the film presents his own internal struggle in compelling ways, whether it’s a tentative, exploratory conversation with his best friend and secret crush Danny (Jonathan Whitesell) or his fumbling interactions with Kaly (Mary Galloway), a sweet, pregnant young supermarket cashier. In fact, Galloway’s character has a significant part to play, as Kaly also offers a helping hand to Judy, and the young actress delivers an appealing, open-hearted performance that is both naturalistic and extremely moving.
The script aims for a low-key realism and mostly hits the mark, unfolding in intimate, conversational scenes that are suffused with warmth and humour. This is particularly evident in the early scenes, where Ed’s terrible jokes – e.g. “The old drinking problem again”, as Judy’s hand shakes her coffee cup – speak volumes about the love and easy familiarity of their relationship, where he has become both husband and carer.
Hepburn’s direction is assured throughout, drawing on her own experience of having a mother with Parkinson’s Disease. Her control of the tone is striking, steadfastly refusing to sentimentalise, yet finding poignant details at every turn, not least the emotional power of a simple act of kindness, such as Kaly offering to deliver groceries. The film looks stunning, with Norm Li’s textured, painterly cinematography making impressive use of both the lakeside locations (the family live on the edge of Stuart Lake) and the snowy landscapes. There’s also a superb score from Ben Fox that perfectly complements both the setting and the subject matter. Sharply written and superbly acted, this is an assured and emotionally engaging debut that marks out writer-director Hepburn as a serious talent to watch.
Never Steady, Never Still is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.