The drama unfolds around an estranged brother and sister (Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson) who have returned home after their father (Rob Story) suffers a stroke, falling into a coma. Teague’s Cal is the younger brother, but it’s up to him to settle the estate, of which little money remains except for a mortgage on the dilapidated ranch, and a 25-year-old stallion named MT
Richardson’s Erin – Cal’s half-sister – is the same age as Mr. T, but ran away aged 18 after enduring years of physical abuse at the hands of her father. Erin has never forgiven her father and hasn’t spoken to her brother in years, hurt by his inability to stand up for her when she needed him. She has returned to Montana to see her father one last time, planning only a quick visit – until she learns that Cal is planning to put the sick horse down. Erin changes her plan, stating that she intends to bring the animal back with her to upstate New York, an impractical plan that clearly seems like a misplaced concern.
This kind of tense dynamic is usually the stuff of high-pitched melodrama. But the filmmakers let the story unfold slowly – perhaps too slowly. Some plot points seem to be the antithesis of drama: a parent is on life support; a truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere; several passages of prolonged and bitter silence. In this sequence of unhurried scenes, a leisurely car ride feels like a major event.
Yet the slowness echoes the characters’ reluctance to confront their personal issues. It also seems in tune with the Spartan setting, in which you can drive for hundreds of miles and feel like you’ve gotten nowhere.
There is a tempo in the silence. As the old man’s home nurse, Ace (Gilbert Owuor), explains to Cal – teaching him how to massage his father’s immobile limbs – even a body in such a compromised state has a rhythm, “like a conversation”. . Yet when conversations happen out loud, the dialogue can sound stilted. This happens when Cal entrusts his soul to Ace over his strained relationship with Erin. And when Erin points out that the strata of a canyon resemble Dante’s infernal circles, the literary reference seems forced.
“Montana Story” is more effective in its reticence. One of the most emotional scenes is largely silent: on a long drive, Cal tells his sister about the car accident that killed his mother two years ago. Erin doesn’t say anything at first, but her body language says it all. She avoids looking at her brother, though her face seems charged with emotion, while Cal looks at her for some kind of connection. When he tries to break the ice by bringing up a seemingly unrelated high school incident, it’s like the body communication Ace was referring to earlier: an attempt to mimic the rhythms of conversation, while avoiding what’s is too painful to articulate.
The main cast are perfectly compelling as Cal and Erin work out their strained relationship. Teague (“It”) is a constant presence, but also uncomfortable, as befits a youngster who is just beginning to take on responsibilities beyond his years. Richardson — so good in “Columbus” and “Support the Girls” — takes on a more mature role here, and she expresses her character’s trauma with subtle power. Whether she’s driving a ramshackle van or riding Mr. T one last time, she looks completely at home in this 21st century western, as Erin’s restrained emotions show on the expressive face of the actress.
At times, “Montana Story” feels like a road movie, unfolding in real time, across a seemingly endless vista. Is the trip worth it in the end? Despite a few frustrating detours, yes.
R In neighborhood theatres. Contains strong language. 113 minutes