Film Review: Never Steady, Never Still

Self-consciously sad to an almost obnoxious degree, despite the dedicated work of a wonderful cast.
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The opening line, “Death is a gift from God, just as life is,” prepares you for what’s to come. If there ever was a film that was addicted to sadness, Never Steady, Never Still is surely it. Expanded from a short film, Kathleen Hepburn’s portrait of a mother with Parkinson’s disease, Judy (Shirley Henderson), and her directionless, sexually confused son, Jamie (Théodore Pellerin), in bleak British Columbia,  is thoroughly steeped in moroseness, exacerbated by two major deaths.   

Gloom is not necessarily a bad thing, cinematically. Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and, by extension, Ozu’s lauded “remake,” Tokyo Story, as well as De Sica’s Umberto D. and Jack Clayton’s underrated The Pumpkin Eater, are a few titles that immediately spring to mind, capable of inducing tears in the most satisfyingly cathartic way. But Hepburn’s directorial style is both heavy and plodding, and at the same time so transfixed on breaking your heart, that the result is not only an extremely logy bore but off-putting as well.

It’s a decided shame, for the film is beautifully cast, with a cache of fine actors at the ready. Ever since Topsy Turvy and 24 Hour Party People and through her Moaning Myrtle turn in the Harry Potter series, Henderson has been one of the most interesting character actresses on the screen, and she gives a fully committed, literally painstaking performance as the seriously challenged heroine. But it’s the kind of role that has VICTIM stamped all over it, with only incidental moments of humor or respite from all the quavering suggested by the title. When pity is the one basic emotion evoked over a very long haul, as this film is, it just gets tiresome and rather exploitative. Pellerin, in what could have been the ultimate cliché of the bewildered and angry adolescent forced into being hs mother’s keeper, manages to give a fresh and quite beautiful performance under the harrowing circumstances. Mary Galloway, playing a pregnant store cashier, is quite affecting as a brief light in the lives of both mother and son.

The true star of the film is cinematographer Norm Li, who apprehends moments of striking beauty in the eerily beautiful, if forbidding, terrain. His basic palette is gray, with occasional splashes of green verdancy, and he manages to give endless variations of that sober hue. But Hepburn hamhandedly lingers on his beautifully scenic shots for such an eternity that you want to shout, “Okay, okay, you’re making art. We get it!”

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