by Will Ross
Stories of people with Parkinson’s — especially in rural areas — are rare, and that’s not totally without good reason. Such diseases require a personal closeness to the subject matter to do well, and too often, art about diseases is platitudinous, cynical, or otherwise reductive. One certainly couldn’t accuse Kathleen Hepburn of not being close to her writing and direction in Never Steady, Never Still, a film that radiates compassion and nuance in every moment it spends with its Parkinson’s-afflicted mother Judy (Shirley Henderson), even as the means of telling the story can waver in effectiveness.
The film splits its focus between Judy, who is in her third decade living with the illness, and her son Jamie (Theodore Pellerin), who hopes to save money and leave town in the same way his childhood friend did. The 19-year-old Jamie is struggling with both an abusive boss at a back-breaking job on a natural gas plant, and with turbulent doubts about his own sexuality (he shows strong romantic feelings for his departed buddy, which are implied to be mutual but unrevealed). In spite of their ties as a family, there’s little thematically connecting their two stories, besides a pervasive feeling of being trapped in the sheltering backwoods of northern British Columbia.
That linkage is enough, but it’s a slim one. It would be too charitable to ignore that Never Steady, Never Still does little to elaborate on the precise socioeconomic conditions that could ensnare someone in a place they don’t want to be, free country or not. Financial roadblocks and linkages are foggy, the consequences of a job being won or lost are scarcely felt, the function or consequence of being anything but heterosexual in a small community goes unremarked. It would, however, be uncharitable not to acknowledge that its aims are overwhelmingly internal, concerned with the plight of the unknown and helpless. At the same time, its frequent use of locations and details to establish a sense of place (a personal favourite, as someone who grew up in small-town BC: the grocery store is part of the Overwaitea chain) makes its social simplicity stand out as a missed opportunity to further inform and complicate its main characters’ lives.
In Judy’s case, however, that life is compelling and complicated in its own right. For anyone who’s been close to somebody enduring Parkinson’s, Shirley Henderson’s performance — stooped over, violently shaking, whimpering at the overwhelming struggle of something as simple as putting on a boot, frighteningly small and weak — will ring unsettlingly true. It’s all the more remarkable for its expression of inner conflicts and individuality that go beyond a purely technical expression of illness and make Judy feel like a real, breathing person. Judy faces her life with a carefully learned and studiously generous grace, while at the same time she pushes herself beyond her capabilities. It’s a performance that rests on a fulcrum of guilt and memory, marred only by the fact that, except for her external circumstances, little about her seems to change or develop. Nonetheless, even though much of her dialogue is too small and mumbly to clearly make out, there’s rarely doubt to what Judy is thinking or feeling, the mark of both a very skilful performance even under enormous constraints, and of delicately revealing dialogue (“he would have been bored to death in there”, she quips after a funeral).
Vocal audibility becomes much more of an issue in the film’s several instances of voiceover narration by Judy and Jamie, which, particularly in Judy’s case, are too fuzzy and difficult to hear for crucial, poetically revealing moments. These voiceovers suffer a little for their writing, which can fall victim to ostentation and on-the-nose metaphors, but also have gems of simple, aphoristic clarity, like “If you’re better than this place, then why is this place so hard?”
The cinematographic schema of the film is stylistically consistent, if not always suited to the moment. Never Steady, Never Still uses handheld cameras, usually with longer focal lengths, often playing out entire scenes in long, single masters. This emphasis on duration — frequently lingering on Judy’s painful struggles to accomplish mundane tasks — is suited to the film’s theme of suffering in (a) place, as simply existing attracts obstacles that seem too great to bear. The framing, however, is less consistent, particularly the camera’s tendency to place objects in the foreground as it watches long conversations play out. This gives a voyeuristic overtone to scenes that surely wasn’t intended, as Never Steady’s perspective is clearly intimate and empathetic, not distanced observance.
On the other hand, the blocking within those frames — and the use of gentle, unassuming pans to capture tics and gestures that sculpt people’s motivations — is excellent throughout. While Hepburn may lean a little too heavily on filming people from behind, the body language, movements, and positions in any given scene are carefully considered and frequently powerful in their own right, from moments of overt visual tragedy (e.g. a repeated shot which, the second time around, is absent a character) to subtler invocations of a scene’s dynamics. A favourite example: a pickup outside a grocery store, wherein the dense crosshatching lines of shopping carts make Jamie seem to be navigating a metallic maze in order to close the distance with his quarry.
In spite of having a clearer development over the film’s length, Jamie’s story is the less successful of the two leads. It’s clear what afflicts him — his lingering feelings for his friend, his need to stay close to his ailing mother, his unbearably hostile work environment — but less clear what drives him, what he dreams about when he’s not full of misery, besides a coming-of-age, discovering-sexuality story that has, at this point, become fairly familiar in independent cinema. This is exacerbated by Pellerin’s unsteady work in the role: at times, his bubbling frustration or curiosity or fear are perceptibly warring with his studied, somber stoicism; at times, his readings are simply monotonous.
Similarly, the music by Ben Fox (his feature debut) strikes the same notes far too many times. Long, warm, synthesized notes that swell then fade, moving gradually, melancholically from one tone to the next, are a fine way to express the slowness and isolation of life in a small community, but they also become repetitive and, therefore, more obtrusive and artificial-feeling as the film goes on. It feels like both a symptom of the film’s issues with creating an arc and of a lack of an overarching musical structure that the music conspicuously stays flat.
I say that the film doesn’t create much of an arc; at the same time, it never feels like less than a living, breathing object, marked by someone who cared deeply about the characters and was hell-bent on presenting them faithfully. Never Steady, Never Still’s successes in humanism make it a rewarding film in its own right, and while it feels its contemplative aims are misdirected into a wayward lack of forward motion, the tonal control and attention to detail make the shortcomings in its craft feel more like an exciting starting point for Hepburn’s career in features than a dead-end.