After a nine year break from directing, filmmaking partners Scott McGehee and David Seigel (What Maisie Knew) return with family drama Montana Story, screening during SFFILM Festival 2022 and releasing in select theaters on May 13th courtesy of Bleecker Street. Their story is a series of juxtapositions examining personal responsibility through the complicated relationships of family, relationships that exist outside of blood, and humanity’s connection to nature. Largely held together by performances from Haley Lu Richardson (Columbus) and Owen Teague (It), Montana Story is bleak but not without hope, frigid but not without warmth, and distant but not without comfort.
Sometime before the holidays, Cal (Teague) returns home to Montana to help address his comatose father’s affairs. His father, Wade (Rob Story), is already under the care of hospice nurse Ace (Gilbert Owuor) and the farm is managed by long-time family friend Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), so all Cal really needs to do is figure out how to pay the many outstanding debts his father is leaving behind before heading back to Cheyenne. Feeling the task as overwhelming but manageable, Cal is set on taking care of it all until his estranged sister Erin (Richardson) arrives, throwing doubt into his choices. With death hanging in the air, the two must confront their past if there will ever be a chance to move forward.
Despite the wide-open skies and lands that make up the locations of Montana Story, there’s a persistent claustrophobia. It’s not just in the predominantly mid-range to close-up shots of the cast, but the way in which they all carry themselves in combination with the season of the story. Outside of a comment that the holidays are coming, the audience is never clued into when the tale is taking place. Additionally, with the exception of a few exposition dumps through Ace, the characters rarely talk about anything that they themselves don’t already know. Because of this, the dialogue we get feels weighted, pregnant with fear and uncertainty, though coming across differently with each character. In the space of what’s not said, the performances convey the heaviness of the past, burdens currently carried, debts possibly owed, the respective rage and shame of choice bubbling underneath the surface. It feels appropriate that even in the obvious cold of the outdoors, the wind howling around them, snow visible in patches, the siblings often move outside when growing uncomfortable with being in the same house as their father. Even as the weather seeks to overpower them, they’d rather face the storm than what’s inside.
This, of course, speaks a great deal to the central conflict, the family one which serves as the main thread for the other two subplots to branch from. It’s a slow burn, set up with the arrival of a visibly uneasy Cal, who’s made somehow even more uncomfortable at the sudden sight of his sister. There’s palatable tension between the two, Richardson communicating Erin’s seething disdain to return to the ranch, let alone be in the presence of her family, via terse vocal delivery and similarly aligned body language. The mere act of stepping foot on the property appears to pain Erin. The few times they are away from the ranch, Richardson shifts her kinesiological presentation to suggest more of a lightness, a breezier way of speaking without guarding. Yet, the moment that the past is mentioned or recognized, all warmth from Richardson’s performance is sucked out like a gust of wind billowing across the Rockies. Without going into details, the core conflict comes down to responsibility and the hard choices that come with it. For instance, in the present, part of why Erin sticks around is she disagrees with one of Cal’s decisions, believing it to be the easy way out versus the right thing to do. From what we’ve seen up to this argument between the two, Cal is taking nothing lightly, Teague conveying the perpetual burden Cal appears to be under from before his arrival at the ranch, so Erin’s reaction feels like an overreaction powered by resentment. With time, however, the narrative reveals the potential for both to be wrong, blinded by their attempts at over-correction. I refer to it as potential because, as mentioned, the script only offers information when it absolutely has to, leaving a great deal hanging in the air, the precise meaning left to be addressed after the events of the film.
Though there is little-to-no resolution in the subplots, everything draws connection to Wade, the one person without a voice in the story. As mentioned by Ace, his story is written, everyone else has to finish their own. By centering their narrative conflict on a comatose individual, McGehee and Seigel force the siblings into making a choice. As the story goes on, the audience learns the details of the estrangement, which reframes how the audience first sees the pair — Cal as the dutiful son, Erin as the distant daughter — revealing the complexity beneath, a complexity that Wade cannot absolve, requiring, instead, that the next generation, the siblings, chart the course from there. When laid against the subplots which involve environmentalism and relations with Indigenous peoples, there’s a persistent heaviness, an inability to abdicate from or delegate away responsibilities. To whom do we owe the greater responsibility: the person who brought us into the world or the land upon which we tread? What about the people who take care of our home upon land that was once their ancestors’? To what do we owe them? There’s a lot to ponder, but too little is left as meditation for it all to congeal in a satisfying form. Instead, the questions, while great, feel under-explored, and the central conflict, though resolved, incomplete based on the issues raised at the start.
Carried mostly by Teague and Richardson, Montana Story is at once a compelling, intimate family drama and a vast exploration of greater responsibility as a citizen of Earth. Giles Nuttgens’s (Hell or High Water) cinematography gorgeously captures the wonder and largesse of nature, pulling colors where they might otherwise feel absent given the season and reducing their power where they may be overwhelming to the scene. An outstanding piece of Montana’s puzzle, specifically, is the production design of the ranch by Kelly McGehee (What Maise Knew/American Honey) when juxtaposed against either the Absaroka or Gallatin Range (the film was shot in Paradise Valley). The interior looks warm and welcoming, but is also comprised of small rooms and hallways, creating a sense of forced tightness against the spaciousness of the mountain ridge visible in almost every shot of the cast when outside. Adding in the performances by Teague, Richardson, and the rest of the very small cast, Montana Story feels like a proper world where decisions have consequences, even when the choice made is to do nothing at all. If only there was greater cohesion between the meditative aspects of the subplots to the central story, then there might be more satisfaction in the conclusion.
Screening during the 2022 San Francisco International Film Festival.
In select theaters beginning May 13th, 2022.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.