You can’t build a house without breaking a few laws; that’s the message of “Still,” in which an elderly New Brunswick man runs afoul of the Royal District Planning Commission while constructing a cottage for his ailing wife. Based on the true story of Craig Morrison, writer-director Michael McGowan’s gently anti-government “get off my lawn” yarn should appeal to the platinum generation and Tea Party types alike, boasting a pair of loving, lived-in performances by James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold. With well-targeted handling, “Still” could eke out a modest theatrical life before settling into comfortable retirement in ancillary.
For decades, the Morrisons have been able to get by from the cattle and strawberries raised on their land, but an explosion of regulations are making life hard for Craig (Cromwell), cutting into his ability to sell the fruits of his labor. A bald eagle of a man, Cromwell may not be Canadian, but embodies just the right rigidity of spirit to play such a proud, self-reliant individual — not the sort who suffers bureaucrats trying to regulate his quality of life.
“Still” begins in a courtroom with Cromwell delivering the sort of speech that only works in the movies, accompanied by Campbell Scott as his counsel. From there, it rewinds two years to the start of the 87-year-old’s troubles. Anticipating that special accommodations must be made for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife, Irene (Bujold), Craig embarks on a plan to downsize their increasingly challenging ranch life, lest the family’s seven kids succeed in booking them both into a retirement home.
The film pointedly steers clear of depicting its elderly characters as benign softies, even going so far as to include a frisky love scene that would put many younger couples to shame, though the script seems a bit too eager to cap every potentially insightful moment with a laugh. While flaring tempers aren’t uncommon, Craig doesn’t seem angry at Irene over her lapses so much as he rails against a nature that could be so cruel as to steal her mind away, if only one tiny memory at a time. Since healing her is beyond his power, this shipmaker’s son dedicates himself to building a new house in the spot she’d always wanted — a small crest on their 1,000-acre land with a clear view of the bay.
Craig proceeds without blueprints, milling the lumber and performing the labor himself, unaware that the National Building Code imposes a rigorous series of fees and specifications that must be followed every step of the way. Enter the unyielding government inspector (Jonathan Potts), a man just doing his job, whose ignored stop-work orders are clearly destined to put Craig in court and his new, handcrafted home — cited with 26 violations — at risk of demolition.
At a certain point, the local newspaper got wind of the story and turned it into a human-interest sensation — which, of course, is precisely the element that seems to have attracted McGowan. Still, the enterprise would topple if its foundation were merely grousing about the ridiculousness of building codes. While the legal battle gives auds a way in, the essence of the film resides in Cromwell and Bujold’s performances. Each has created a unique character, and while Cromwell towers over his beautiful, birdlike Canadian co-star, Craig and Irene clearly seem destined for one another.
McGowan treats auds to glimpses of the Northern Ontario and New Brunswick countryside, capturing a real flavor for the region and its residents, softened somewhat by the pic’s mild score and folksy humor. The production team meets the challenge of incrementally building a house onscreen while making it look like the handiwork of a single old-fashioned soul.