With a riveting central performance by Shirley Henderson as a woman dealing with advanced Parkinson’s, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Kathleen Hepburn’s Never Steady, Never Still (adapted from her short of the same name) was simply about the tragedy of the disease. A different version of this story would probably go that route because it’s the “flashier” path towards recognition. The Vancouver native, however, decides to go further by delving beneath the surface by exposing the hardships and struggles of life itself. She divides her story in two so that Judy (Henderson) and her son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin) can receive equal focus. They’re both shown at a crossroads wherein there’s no choice but to dive headlong into an abyss of independence neither is certain can be conquered.
When a sudden death forces Judy to fend for herself for the first time in the eighteen years since her ailment presented, she doesn’t have the money or support system to render each day anything but an arduous journey from day to night. And at the same time nineteen-year old Jamie is up north in the oil fields of Alberta, away from home and thus faced with the challenge of embracing a sense of responsibility he had always pushed aside or floundering under the pressure of adulthood yet again. They each deal with their grief in their own way as it eats at them until they’re cornered without an easy escape. Their lives are mired in their small town rural existence — love the one constant holding them together.
It’s time to embrace identities they’ve thus far postponed and do so without relying on the other as a crutch. Their stubbornness is born from a desire to not trap the other (or themselves) along a path they’ll ultimately resent. She’s desperate to let the woman beneath her condition live on despite the difficulty of separating both in the public’s perception and he’s unsure of who exactly the man beneath his mounting frustrations is since he’s caught between feelings for his college-bound friend Danny (Jonathan Whitesell) and the homophobic remarks by a coworker (Jared Abrahamson’s Daryl) that drive him to find solace in a woman instead. The hope is that this space provides the ability to redefine themselves as individuals before eventually reuniting with strength rather than guilt.
The result is a wonderful expansion on the already effective conceit within Hepburn’s short. Where that focused solely on the return of its matriarch’s son from the oil fields and the reconnection between the two of them along with the boy and his friend (the Danny character), its feature counterpart allows us the opportunity to know the cause of the pain we see on their faces. It may not seem like much, but acknowledging the inexperience that leads them towards their respective paths is huge as far as ensuring a narrative thrust as important as the emotional impact of deafening silences and quiet eruptions. We meet their rock (Nicholas Campbell’s Ed) and understand the turmoil his absence supplies. But we also see their drive to make him proud.
This film becomes a journey of trials and tribulations with as much inspirational grace as crippling resentment. For every kindness comes an explosion of rage or embarrassment. For every opportunity to prove self-worth, a misstep that risks erasing every ounce of confidence earned. It’s only through these detours, though, that they can learn to accept how individuality isn’t about not needing someone else as much as realizing where in your life you do. It’s easier to feel responsible for the pain of others than allow them the choice to accept the bad with the good. For someone in Judy’s position to wonder if Ed would have been happier without her is to forget the home they built and son they conceived. To be selfish is to be human.
The film’s dual leads aren’t the only ones representing this truth, though. Hepburn has imbued her periphery characters with the same sense of authentic internal strife. It could be Judy’s neighbor Lenny (Lorne Cardinal) admitting that the pain of death is too much to bear head-on or the aforementioned Daryl compensating for his own shortcomings by augmenting those of others whether or not they exist as more than a means to boldly create a false sense of superiority. And we see it in young Kaly (Mary Galloway) — her promise as an intelligent and empathetic teen opposite the drama of an unplanned pregnancy within an environment whose opportunity for financial security is also a means of supplying the father with an escape. No one has it easy.
This is the big takeaway from the whole, but Judy isn’t present as someone to sympathize. She’s here to embolden with awe because of her conviction to survive. The same goes with Jamie as his maturation within a cruel and physically draining job strengthens more than just muscle. Their newfound isolation asks them to be more cognizant of their needs and less embarrassed to open themselves up to outsiders. Their rocky trajectories also show that perfection doesn’t exist — especially not in blue-collar Canadian towns far-removed from a city they see as a threat to their very way of life. To be knocked down is to provide a chance of getting back up. To do so amidst life’s simple pleasures is to find hope always within reach.
And you couldn’t ask for two better performances than the ones given by Henderson and Pellerin. She’s the obvious standout due to the physical transformation necessary to depict a disease with such a debilitating impact on the central nervous system. Her Judy never appears as a caricature or anything less than real with her numerous long-takes struggling to complete what abled people would consider “simple tasks.” She refuses to use it as an excuse too, her choices made with full cognizance no matter how flawed. Jamie isn’t one for excuses either, gradually shedding his shell as Pellerin supplies the angst, irritation, and incredulity necessary to open his eyes to a reality unfiltered by empty talk of those as insecure and uncertain as he. We make our own answers.
Never Steady, Never Still opens in NYC’s Empire 25 on Friday, June 22 before expanding.