Never Steady, Never Still review Shirley Henderson Theodore PellerinYear: 2018 (US release)
Director(s): Kathleen Hepburn
Writer(s): Kathleen Hepburn
Region of Origin: Canada

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: n/a
35mm, Color, 112 mins

Synopsis: A mother struggles to take control of her life in the face of advanced Parkinson’s disease, while her son battles his sexual and emotional identity. (Source)

Never Steady, Never Still is a pretty grueling viewing experience. Director Kathleen Hepburn’s exploration of loss, hardship (including frank depictions of Parkinson’s) and isolation doesn’t hold back. On the flip side, Hepburn’s debut is also a quietly dazzling one. Within the extended moments of internal struggle and confusion, is a film lined with grace, beauty and an inextricable family bond. As such, unfiltered performances from stars Shirley Henderson and Theodore Pellerin highlight a film that’s incredibly humane and empathetic. Though not for everyone, Hepburn’s film is definitely an important one, rendering a vulnerability and strength hardly depicted or given attention to in this way.

Judy (Shirley Henderson), her husband Ed (Nicholas Campbell) and teenage son Jamie (Theodore Pellerin) don’t have much but each other. Living in a small lakeside community, the family finds itself unwittingly at a threshold. After Ed passes away, Judy and Jamie are forced to fend for themselves. Though she’s in the midst of a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s, Judy is distraught at the idea of being a burden to her son. She encourages Jamie to go out and live his life, knowing full well that he’s on the cusp on manhood. As Jamie goes off to work at the Alberta oil fields, however, mother and son are put in a position neither are prepared for. Judy’s progressive ailments make the most mundane routines a struggle, while Jamie is thrust into an unforgiving world of overbearing masculinity and psychological turmoil. As the two attempt to forge disparate paths amidst grief and hardship, they find an unexpected strength from within, and come to learn a singular truth about family.

True to form, Hepburn’s film isn’t a race. It’s not just about where it’s going, but the resilience and courage it takes to get there. In that respect, Hepburn finds power in her doc-style realism. We are literally dropped right in the middle of an established family dynamic just as it’s forced to shift and evolve. Alternating between a separated Judy and Jamie, Hepburn gives equal focus to the forces that keep each at a distance, both psychologically and physically, but also the unsaid vows that keep them united. As Hepburn deconstructs each character, she creates two portraits that feel like separate sides of the same coin. In the most beautiful way, Hepburn illustrates the hidden power of a family in the face of grief and uncontrollable circumstance. When Judy and Jamie’s stories finally link up, there’s no denying the catharsis and sense of fortitude that locks into focus.

Never Steady, Never Still review Shirley HendersonWhat’s immediately apparent, is that the film’s immersive qualities would be nothing without its strong-willed cast. As the film’s heart and center, Shirley Henderson is an absolute knockout. Committing fully, Henderson brings a physicality and spirit that leap off the screen. Despite Judy’s debilitating attributes, Henderson draws a character who is full of kindness and gentle strength, preventing the character from being a victim. Judy is an empowering symbol of courage, and one that we are in complete awe of. Opposite, Theodore Pellerin’s Jamie presents a wholly different set of conundrums and existential angst. He’s vulnerable, raw and honest. Struggling with identity and sexual turmoil, Pellerin is nuanced and complex, pulling us into the film’s shifting moods without escape. Offering fleeting moments of respite, Mary Galloway’s Kaly is an unexpected source of compassion. Starting friendships with both Judy and Jamie at different points, Galloway shines bright in a small, but pivotal role.

Never Steady, Never Still is a patch of rough road, but one that’s ultimately empowering. Hepburn highlights not only the things we can’t control, but also the mercies that come in the form of those around us. Despite its harrowing depiction of Parkinson’s and the tragedy that ties everything together, Hepburn’s showcases a natural grace and fearlessness. Hidden beneath the troubles that plague both Judy and Jamie, is a silent resilience that overcomes anything that gets in its way.

SG