Never Steady, Never Still
(Canada, 112 min.)
Written and directed by Kathleen Hepburn
Starring: Shirley Henderson, Théodore Pellerin, Mary Galloway, Nicholas Campbell, Jared Abrahamson, Lorne Cardinal
Shirley Henderson, the actress with the squeaky voice, is a tremendous force in Never Steady, Never Still. This debut feature from Kathleen Hepburn gives the British actress an outstanding lead role as Judy, a woman living in oil country, BC, who experiences a tragic illness because of contamination from the fields. Judy suffers from crippling tremors having lived with Parkinson’s disease for twenty years and Henderson finds in the character the same empathy and strength that Sally Hawkins brought to her performance as severely arthritic painter Maud Lewis in Maudie. The physical power of this performance is incredible, but the emotional might is even greater.
Judy’s surroundings and family are also in a shaky situation. Her son, Jamie (Théodore Pellerin, The Demons) struggles with the decision that many kids in rural Canada have to make when they graduate high school: leave home and attend university in the city or stay and begin a life of manual labour. Jamie’s friend is going away to school, but since Judy needs help around the house and her husband, Ed (Nicholas Campbell), can only do so much, the boy takes a job in the oil field. There’s only one hitch: Jamie resists his budding sexuality. Maybe life in the fields will make him more of a “man.”
Never Steady, Never Still veers into two storylines as mother and son are separated and Judy stays home while Jamie works in the field. Both characters find themselves unexpectedly and painfully alone. A tragic loss makes Judy test her physical limits and push herself daily, while Jamie finds himself a fish out of water in the boisterous work-hard-and-play-harder mentality among the oil crew. Jamie finds himself in Hello Destroyer territory as toxic masculinity and flat lighting brew a study in perceived gender roles that finds notes of potency comparable to Kevan Funk’s hockey drama. (Machismo personified comes in the form of Jared Abrahamson, just to make the films complement one another even more.) Judy, on the other hand, encounters her own sense of motherhood and independence when a 17-year-old mother-to-be at the grocery store (Fire Song’s Mary Galloway) makes her confront the fact that Jamie’s still a boy, but that the young can grow up when they need to be strong.
The alienation is palpable and Hepburn’s raw ability to harness the frigid landscape of the northern life and rugged Fort St. John ensures that every breath of cold air has a bitter sting of melancholy. The sparse soundtrack emphasizes a quiet life, doubling the loneliness that Judy experiences in her isolation. The effect of all this silence, all this stillness, can be bleak and depressing. While the interiors and the scenes in the oil field don’t often benefit from the film’s preference for natural light, Hepburn and cinematographer Norman Li find great power in the natural light that comes off the coast by the family’s waterfront cottage. The whispers of pink and purple in the sky breathe like fire as Judy frantically aches for stability and security in the cruelty of her condition. It’s a tough, unforgiving patch of the country. The fearlessness of Henderson’s performance affords the resilience one needs to endure.
Hepburn knows how to use the petite actress smartly within the frame. Henderson hunches over while her body shakes as if she has an aggressive case of the shivers, but in the actress’s fragility, Never Steady finds Judy’s strength. Hepburn stages several key scenes in a support group for people with Parkinson’s and these moments in which Henderson and the ensemble fight to overcome a stutter or suppress a tremor convey a refusal to let the disease define them. Henderson is consistently reliable as a character actress with memorable turns in films like Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy and the Harry Potter/Bridget Jones franchises, and in the too rare case of an actor finally getting a lead role to fit the size of her talents, she doesn’t miss a beat.
Never Steady, Never Still is playing in limited release.