The title may imply fevered motion, but it’s the serenity that gets you in “Never Steady, Never Still,” a stoically broken-hearted debut feature from Canadian writer-director Kathleen Hepburn that settles on viewers as quietly as overnight snow on a wintering field. Charting a year in the life of a family in rural British Columbia ruptured by an unanticipated passing, Hepburn’s film eschews the expected emotional progression of a grief drama by focusing as much on continuing pain as sudden mourning: For longstanding Parkinson’s patient Judy (Shirley Henderson) and her rudderless teenage son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin), the loss of a husband and father is just one more challenge in a life of many.
Directed and performed with acute sensitivity, with more glimmers of sweetness and humor than the premise might suggest, this recent Toronto festival premiere — expanded from an award-winning short Hepburn completed in 2015 — has already secured U.S. distribution with LevelFilm, while deals have also been locked on home turf and in the U.K.. Theatrical prospects are modest, but online arthouse platforms will suit the film’s intimate scale and scope.
“Death is a gift from God, just as life is,” says a quiver-voiced Judy at the very outset of “Never Steady, Never Still,” as she reflects in voiceover on the stillborn child she had years ago. It’s an introduction that subtly wrongfoots the audience, both in terms of tone and focus. The words aren’t Judy’s own, but belong to her late mother: She quotes them with shrugging skepticism, not remotely signing off on their air of pious naiveté but wearily wishing she could believe them.
It’s the first of many subtly embedded reminders in Hepburn’s film not to infantilize or patronize Judy because of her fragile-making disability. Henderson’s performance, meanwhile, pays equal detail to the debilitating physicality of Parkinson’s disease and the coping strategies she devises to live with it as best she can. (The mere act of doing up a button becomes an exquisite narrative challenge under Hepburn’s watchful, thoughtful eye.) She may attend weekly group therapy sessions with similarly afflicted locals, but life on the remote square of lakeside land she shares with Jamie and her devoted husband and carer Ed (Nicholas Campbell) is otherwise notably uncushioned and self-sufficient.
The lost child, meanwhile, is never brought up again in Hepburn’s loosely shaped, conversation-driven screenplay, though it hangs over proceedings like an unassuming ghost — a base note of known pain behind Judy’s present-day tragedy. When Ed suffers a sudden, fatal heart attack, she accepts the loss with a kind of resigned familiarity that doesn’t make things any easier. For newly adult Jamie, prodded by Ed to accept a grueling job in the oil fields of Alberta, the tragedy is more disorienting, further stalling his uncertain attempts to find his own path — both professionally and personally, as he struggles to determine his sexuality.
“Never Steady, Never Still” — the title, it turns out, alludes most poignantly to life’s cruel refusal to hit a pause button at any stage — is most affecting in its depiction of the conflicted mutual dependence of mother and son: Grief binds them in emotional need, at a time when Jamie in particular should be carving out his own future. Pellerin’s frangible, inward-facing performance beautifully complements that of the softly expressive Henderson, as common threads of manner and body language emerge between them. Yet while the film maintains its intense observation of this newly narrowed family, it also gradually builds a warm, non-cloying sense of community in this severe but stunning stretch of Stuart Lake: There a particularly lovely turn from Mary Galloway as a young, pregnant supermarket cashier who inadvertently offers kinship to both Judy and Jamie at different intervals.
Aesthetically, the film is as delicately conceived as it is on the page, with the cottony hues and textures of Norm Li’s lensing not making an overly grandiose point of the film’s magnificent landscape and hard changes of weather. Seasons shift in the background with the same silent exactitude as every other domestic and environmental detail caught in the film’s kindly but pragmatic gaze, though they don’t always usher in the emotional change and renewal with which they’re poetically associated. Life goes on in “Never Steady, Never Still,” and so, in its way, does death.