Montana Story is a slice of life drama that just watches as a couple of people struggle through a difficult situation. It offers no dramatic resolutions or grand payoffs. It is quiet, patient, sad, hopeful and reflective. The story of an estranged brother and sister reunited at the home of their dying father, it is a well-written, well-acted version of a relatively common plot. Set in Montana, with mountains in the background, it is an enjoyably contemplative example of this story that takes its time getting to its truly earned emotional highpoints. It may not exactly break new ground, yet it is skillfully made and a worthwhile viewing experience.
Seven years ago, Erin ran away and has not spoken to her father or younger brother, Cal, since. With their father unconscious and on the verge of death following a stroke, Cal and Erin return to the family ranch to tie up some loose ends and dig up the pain of the past.
Montana Story (111 minutes, not including the end credits) is from the writing/directing duo of Scott McGehee and David Siegel. The best thing they do here is allow their characters to behave as people really would under these circumstances. There is no forced exposition between Cal and Erin. They are already aware of what occurred between them, so there is no need to explain anything to each other. Everything necessary for the audience to know about their feelings can be seen in the way they communicate with one another. Based on their interactions, it seems clear that they were close once, before whatever caused Erin to leave.
McGehee and Siegel do provide a reason for them to rehash the past in the form of Ace, a live-in nurse who is taking care of their father. A Kenyan immigrant caring for an old white man, while the man’s kids deal with their complicated feelings for their dying dad, Ace could very easily have fallen into cliché. Thankfully, he is written with sensitivity and played by Gilbert Owuor as though this is just one stop in this man’s life, as opposed to a crucial part of his journey. He does not deliver sage wisdom; he politely observes and does his job.
The leads are Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson, two up-and-coming young actors who both do their best work so far here. Richardson, who was quite good in Unpregnant, is really good as a woman returning to the scene of her trauma, who then wonders why she came back. She has so much anger, combined with hurt and sadness, that Richardson conveys without ever making Erin seem like a mean or angry person.
Teague has the more layered role as the child who stayed in touch with his father. He goes through the motions of the dutiful son, preparing the ranch so it can be sold after his father dies, but he also looks uncomfortable being there. He is obviously shaken when Erin unexpectedly arrives. Teague plays most of this like Cal is barely holding himself together. When he finally can’t anymore, it isn’t explosive or showy; it is closer to exhaustion. These performances are the main reason Montana Story is successful.
The cinematography by Giles Nuttgens is a beautiful western-tinged backdrop to the intimate tale of two siblings seeking to close the door on their childhood. It is a good story, told effectively, with quality acting, writing and all-around filmmaking. With all the spectacle taking up multiplexes, it is nice, every once in a while, to see a movie that is actually about people.
3¾ out of 5
Owen Teague as Cal
Haley Lu Richardson as Erin
Gilbert Owuor as Ace
Written and Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel