[Atlanta Film Festival] Never Steady, Never Still (2017) - Reviewed

Never Steady, Never Still screened at ATLFF
After watching the trailer I had prepared myself for some hard viewing. But the real and unflinching portrayal of a life with Parkinson’s disease set within the still beating heart of a bleak and unforgiving British Columbia coastal town weakened my resolve within minutes. Shirley Henderson lends a naked fragility to every scene, with all rough edges left exposed and all unpalatable truths spoken aloud. As a mother, husband, and son try to come to terms with something so undignified and all encompassing we watch their struggle with pained expressions and enduring empathy.

Canadian screenwriter and director Kathleen Hepburn has lived the ever-present reality of Parkinson’s disease since she was nine years old. Never Steady, Never Still is a story she was destined to tell, as it is one that has permeated the majority of her existence.

“I wanted to know what my mother felt, and I thought that I could by writing about it. But I think in the end the antithesis of the film comes from a much more selfish place. To me it became more about the son’s realization that even though he was at a time in his life that he needed a mother to hold him up, it now fell to him to save her.”

What a daunting task for any director, as they try to tell a story that is so close to the bone. It delivers in all that it endeavors to be. It is undeniably a heartbreaking and intimate account of a family struggling with degenerative illness, homosexuality and death. But I almost feel guilty when I go on to say that I did not enjoy even a second of this film. And after giving it much thought I don’t think this film was created to be enjoyed.

From the get-go, the logistics of shooting were extremely challenging. Shot in the isolated regions of Fort St. James and Fort St. John, BC in the dead of winter. No running water or phone reception and shot entirely on 35mm film. The production itself was a battle to escape the trappings of time, financial budget and problematic weather. After picking up the majority of funding from the ‘Woman in the director’s chair’ award, Kathleen was more determined that ever to make her name synonymous with female empowerment. From her first feature film she has established herself as a creator that wants to tell stories that aren’t always easy viewing. But I know that her bravery will garner respect from her peers and audiences alike.

In a lot of the Hollywood offerings depicting illness and human endurance we see a recovery and some sort of redemption or a resurgence of joy. In the case of the doomed existence for all members of our family in Never Steady, Never Still, it became evident early on that none of the characters were about to burst into song or wake up to reveal the it had all been a bad dream. The feelings of isolation and despair were resonating so loudly that I had to turn the film off half way through, make a cup of tea and rally myself before soldiering on to the bitter end.

It became an endurance test of my own emotional fortitude. I had such a deep affinity for these vulnerable souls that I felt I owed it to their plight not to look away. I didn’t want to cower from the reality faced by 60,000 newly diagnosed people each year. So no, I don’t believe this film was created to be enjoyed. It is an artistic representation of Kathleen’s own life experience merged with the desire to be a voice for anyone else who can relate to the themes explored. I would preface any commentary on this film with the forethought that it is not light romantic viewing. Everything else that comes after that is hardship wrapped in a guise of beautiful cinematography and compelling acting performances.

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-Erin Ring