If Brad Pitt were a geek, and a gravely serious one — not a more serious actor but a more doleful and pensive presence — he’d be something like Owen Teague. At 23, Teague has been acting since his teens, mostly on television and in occasional movies like “It,” and he resembles Pitt — the swept-back hair and bee-stung scowl, the sullen thick-featured handsomeness set off by a pair of earnest eyebrows. Okay, he’s not as gorgeous (who is?). But even when he’s doing nothing, Teague holds the screen with what feels like a youthful version of the Pitt magnetism. (Pitt was close to 30 when he hit it big in “Thelma & Louise.”) He’s a soulful and intriguing actor who, I predict, is going to go far.
In “Montana Story,” Teague plays Cal, the troubled son of a man who is laying, at death’s door, in a coma. Much of the film unfolds at the family ranch, which is nestled on 200 scrubby acres with spectacular snow-sprinkled mountains in the distance (when people griped about Jane Campion swapping in New Zealand for Montana in “The Power of the Dog,” this is the Big Sky Country they were envisioning and missing). But the compound, with nothing left but chickens and a broken-down horse, is all but abandoned. Cal has arrived to take care of his father, Wade (Rob Story), who suffered a stroke and is laying in the study in a hospice bed, with no hope of recovery. In a sense, everyone is waiting out the clock.
Ace (Gilbert Owuor), a nurse from Nairobi whose quizzical singsong manner can turn the most neutral statement into a noodge, is on hand, and so is Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), the family’s long-time housekeeper. But this family is broken. Wade, as we learn, was a scoundrel who could be violently abusive. Cal has come to sell the ranch and settle the finances (Wade had plunged the place into bankruptcy), and he doesn’t seem overly torn up about his father’s impending demise. Neither does Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), Cal’s half-sister, who arrives out of nowhere after a seven-year absence. She’s in a quiet cold fury, with feelings about Wade that are even more up-front — she hates him, and maybe always has. But why does she treat Cal, her younger sibling, who strikes us as a stoically gentle and sensitive dude, with what seems to be nearly as much contempt?
The co-writer-directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, have been making dramas on their own stubbornly understated terms for 30 years (they have rarely won as much attention as they did with their first film, “Suture,” in 1993). “Montana Story” is their sixth feature, and I wish I could say that it was a small but moving gem. It is small of scale, and it is, at moments, moving, because McGehee and Siegel know to unfold an independent drama, step by step, in a visually spry and organic way, and their actors pick up the ball and carry it. “Montana Story” is essentially a duet, in which Teague and Richardson, engulfed by a silence of mutual mistrust, enact Cal and Erin’s slow walk back to the past, unpacking what happened — and, just as interestingly, coloring in who these characters are.
Erin is surprised to learn that Mr. T, the 25-year-old stallion, is still alive. Cal, with not much sentimentality, has agreed to have the horse put down (there’s going to be no one to take care of it), but Erin rebels against this notion; she can’t accept it. That’s because the night she left, seven years before, her own horse, Pepper, was killed out of spite by Wade. This raises a question: Who murders a horse? It also plants a thematic seed in our heads: Erin’s decision to save Mr. T is going to be her way of reversing the past. Back in the days of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, drama could thrive on this kind of sweeping metaphor. Today, in a scrappy and mournful indie about domestic trauma, it’s a little too tidy.
Yet Teague and Richardson establish a compelling interplay; their bond is like a tossed-away blossom that uncrumples and comes back to life. Erin is now a cook at a farm-to-table restaurant in upstate New York, and the film traces the wayward path to how she got there. Cal is working toward becoming a civil engineer, and as we hear about his life in Cheyenne, a loneliness comes off him you can just about touch. These two have never stopped needing each other, and their separation stands in for how the fatal estrangement of family members can be rooted in a battle of righteous blindness.
There have been countless therapeutic dramas of domestic abuse. It’s not a subject that’s going away, or should. You could say that it’s eternal. (Hello, “Oedipus Rex.”) But just as therapy is complicated, our relationship with parents who have tormented us with indifference or even sadism is complicated. “Montana Story” works, more than it doesn’t, because of how shrewdly staged it is, but the film’s limitation is that it views Wade, the problem father, in too absolute a way. I’m not suggesting that his abusiveness should be seen as anything but awful, but the film makes him into a poster dad for toxicity.
He was a lawyer who defended a slimy mining company in a fracking case, which Erin called him out for in an article she wrote for her school paper (that’s what touched off his violent explosion). Now, as he lays dying, the two characters try to come to terms with how he wrenched them apart — but they never try to come to terms with him. The climactic scene of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” in which the Tom Cruise character confronts how his justifiable hatred for his SOB of a father could co-exist with love, is one of the great scenes in modern movies, because it captures how even the parents who haunt us with their destruction can’t be written out of our lives. What “Montana Story” needed to show us is that Wade is part of Cal and Erin. He’s not just someone who invaded their safe space.