The ever-impressive Shirley Henderson gives a career-best performance in Kathleen Hepburn's remarkably sure-footed directorial debut. Judy (Henderson), a woman living in far-flung British Columbia, is struggling with debilitating tremors in the later stages of Parkinson's. Every button, every step, is a challenge.
Her family situation is as precarious as her health. Her carer husband (Campbell) dies suddenly. Her rudderless son, Jamie (Pellerin), is struggling with his own sexuality, and is ill-suited to toiling in the oilfields, where he is relentlessly bullied.
Expanded from an award-winning short Hepburn completed in 2015, Never Steady, Never Still arrives with major awards from the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Dublin International Film Festival.
It’s a beautiful, wintry, heartfelt film, for which Hepburn has drawn from her mother’s experiences with Parkinson’s. You can feel the autobiography in a gorgeously naturalistic game of lakeside cribbage and in Henderson’s extraordinary, detailed turn.
The Vancouver-based film-maker doesn’t shy away from emotional pain. We open with Henderson’s fragile voiceover: “Death is a gift from God, just as life is,” and an anecdote about a stillborn child, and close with further cause for grieving.
Against this, life goes on. There are therapy sessions and neighbours and a lovely, heavily pregnant teenager (the wonderful Mary Galloway) who is a supermarket cashier and a source of comfort.
Cinematographer Norman Li makes terrific use of 35mm stock, frozen horizons and natural light on water. Ben Fox's minimal electric score takes cues from the unspoiled landscape.
Like the remote and frequently challenging terrain, Never Steady, Never Still has a sublime, hypnotic gravitas. The film's poignancy and visual poetry mark Hepburn out as a major new directorial talent.