The austere beauty of Never Steady, Never Still reflects the stripped-down lives of Kathleen Hepburn’s self-contained characters, who require little and ask for less. Judy (Shirley Henderson) has early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and only allows herself to express regret and disappointment at a mobility support group (where everyone else is elderly). Living in peaceful isolation on Stuart Lake in rural British Columbia, there are few options for therapy, physical or otherwise.
Writer-director Hepburn’s first feature expands on her 2015 short, which focused on the difficult adjustment to adulthood of eighteen-year-old Jamie, played here with intense tenderness by Théodore Pellerin. Now splitting her focus between mother and son, Hepburn adds emotional depth, showing how two generations of loving but insular people struggle to define themselves in a working-class environment where grit is valued over grace.
Usually a tart-tongued scene-stealer, Henderson is devoid of her trademark hauteur in this remarkable performance. Judy fights against her own body to accomplish the smallest tasks, fighting battles inchmeal in a war she’ll never win. But Henderson doesn’t portray her as a diminished able-bodied person: Judy’s physical existence is built from ingenious work-arounds and self-perpetuating stamina.
Two excruciatingly long scenes — Jamie smashing his car windshield and Judy putting on snow boots — exemplify their struggles with panic and patience, respectively. Cinematographer Norm Li captures these key moments with static camera shots from the back seat and at floor level, achieving a compassionate distance, an artful nonintrusiveness. Hepburn doesn’t demand that her characters conform to norms of sacrifice and redemption, preferring to follow Jamie and Judy’s meandering, unhurried journey to cognizance and mutual appreciation.
Never Steady, Never Still
Directed by Kathleen Hepburn
Now playing, AMC Empire 25
Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.