MONTANA STORY – Review
A prodigal returns in MONTANA STORY but this drama is one that skips the more familiar approach to explore a more interesting road less traveled. Long estranged siblings reunite against the dramatic backdrop of the windswept Montana landscape, when a young woman unexpectedly returns to the ranch home she left seven years earlier, to visit her dying, comatose father, to the surprise of her younger brother who remained and is struggling to handle their father’s final affairs. In the contemporary Western drama MONTANA STORY, Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague play the sister and brother, who work through their feelings about their difficult father and their own past history, as they deal with the financially grim situation their dying parent leaves behind. Richardson and Teague create a realistic relationship between the siblings, which draws us in and elevates the story above the melodrama and mawkishness it could have fallen into.
Shot on location in Montana’s Paradise Valley, MONTANA STORY evokes thoughts of classic Westerns, while offering a fully contemporary, thoughtful, and satisfying family drama set in a magnificent, iconic American landscape.
MONTANA STORY is co-directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel and written by them and David Spreter. While the pacing is deliberately slow, the realistic brother-sister connection between Richardson and Teague, along with some spot-on casting choices and and fine performances all around, draw us deeply into the lives of these people. allowing us to look far below the surface appearance of both people and circumstance.
Cal (Owen Teague) has a lot on his young shoulders as he struggles alone to wrap of the affairs of his comatose father (Rob Story), who is now dying. The young man returned to the sprawling ranch where he grew up to handle this task despite his fraught relationship with his hard-as-nails father, once a prosperous attorney whose clients included a big strip mining company that he helped evade government regulation. Since the stroke rendered him comatose, his father’s care has used up his fortune, the estate is in bankruptcy and the ranch soon to be sold. Although the cost of the live-in hospice nurse, a Kenyan immigrant nicknamed Ace (Gilbert Owuor), is covered, Cal struggles to pay his father’s long-time housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero) and faces hard choices about the fate of his now-elderly childhood horse, a black stallion named Mr. T.
When his slightly older sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), who vanished without a trace seven years earlier, pulls up to the ranch house, announcing her intention of seeing her father one more time, Cal is thunderstruck. Erin had fled the ranch as a teen, after a horrendous beating by her father, and had evaded all of Cal’s efforts to find her. To see her now leaves Cal momentarily speechless, then begins peppering her with questions as she, clearly emotional and indecisive, races about the property dodging those questions.
Clearly the siblings were close when they were young but their personalities are nearly polar opposites. Erin is a fireball of emotion, who walks on to the property ready to walk right back off, a temperament more like their father. Cal, by contrast, is a calm peace-maker by nature, accustomed soothing hot tempers and smoothing ruffled feathers, although he still says what needs to be said. A civil engineer in training, easy-going Cal is all about practical decision-making, although he is by no means cold or unfeeling in those decisions – just, well, practical. He has been doing his best making these tough decisions for his father and the ranch on his own, but when Erin recoils at one decision, he does not argue, although he does point out the absurdity of her impulsive, if kindly-meant decision.
That decision concerns Cal’s old horse, Mr T. When Cal recognizes he has no way to care for his beloved old horse, he makes the tough but practical decision to call a vet to put him down. On learning this, Erin storms off, but quickly returns, announcing her intention to take the elderly horse with her back to upstate New York, where she will then “figure it out.” Typical for Cal, he does not challenge her emotion-driven decision but instead lists reasons why it would work.
The fate of the old horse and Erin’s impractical plan become a running thread through the movie. While other films would pump up the drama, MONTANA STORY allows everything to unfold naturally, giving the actors space to explore their characters and the situation. This natural approach may be slow but it is surprisingly effective, drawing us into the characters lives more deeply than a showier approach would.
The brother and sister, who are actually half-siblings, have a fraught history with their father but also with each other. The family history comes out in conversations, but less often conversations between brother and sister, than between Cal and the other characters in the story. Meanwhile, the one character at the center of all this history, their comatose father, is silent but a looming presence nonetheless.
Much of the story takes place in the past but there are no flashback scenes. Instead, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel made the more challenging, but effective, decision to convey this information through various conversations and through simple scenes, like a truck breaking down on a road, which feels like a much more natural way to learn that backstory and keeps us very much in the present.
The dramatic family story at the film’s center, as the long-separated siblings settle their issues with each other and their harsh father, are lightened by touches of mild humor, interestingly frequently added by supporting non-white characters. Their father’s Kenyan-born hospice nurse, in a wonderful performance by Gilbert Owuor, gently and politely corrects some of Cal’s assumptions about him, and later, while showing Cal how to massage his father’s motionless limbs, wisely talks to him about how they still can have a “conversation” through touch. When Erin sets out to buy a truck and horse trailer to drive the old horse back east with her, she finds one being offered by a man named Mukki (a charming, scene-stealing Eugene Brave Rock). Mukki is bemused by her plan to drive the old horse cross-country from Montana to what he calls the “Big Apple,” although it is really rural upstate New York. When Erin asks if he thinks she’s crazy, Mukki replies no, he has done much crazier things for an animal, and then relates his family history as transplanted Mohicans. It is a brief scene but one of the film’s best – touching, surprising, and gently comic, and offering a little insight into differing perspectives.
Both Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague turn in impressive performances, exploring their characters and their situations with remarkable nuance and strength. Richardson has the more fiery role, and complex, even competing, emotions play across her face is several scenes. As she spends time with her estranged brother, we feel her fall back into a reflexive closeness, something that feels so natural, it seems as if the two actors really are siblings, a rare feat. Teague plays Cal perfectly, as calm and competent but with an underlying uncertainty that comes with being a very young man, just finding his place in the world. It is a sensation aided by Teague’s own slim, angular appearance. These are characters that feel real, you quickly are comfortable with, and that you want to spend time around.
The plot is less the point than the way the story explores people and relationships, all done is a fully realistic, engrossing and human way. The characters, and the actors’ delightful, grounded performances are is the real appeal of MONTANA STORY, along with the strong sense of place that it conveys. The landscape is ever-present, enhanced by stunning photography by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who has also worked with British director Michael Winterbottom and shot the Texas-set, critically-acclaimed HELL OR HIGH WATER. The vistas of the Big Sky Country are always there, as is the constant wind, but they feel lived-in. Against that backdrop, the film explores issues important to the region, like the environment costs of mining, indirectly as the siblings visit the massive pit mine their father defended from regulation, a place that Erin compares to Dante’s Circles of Hell.
MONTANA STORY is a deceptively simple drama that is really all about its real world characters, and the actors fine work, a family drama heightened by the iconic Montana landscape. The film is not without its flaws and it is not for audiences expecting non-stop action, but it exceeds the expectations of the story line and delivers a thoughtful character-driven drama that leaves one with the satisfying feeling of time well spent.
MONTANA opens in theaters on Friday, May 27.
RATING: 3 out of 4 stars