Thursday, May 26, 2022

Montana Story is a decent rural drama that could've been great


The people you're most related to can also become the ones you're most distant from. Family members can become strangers just as strangers can become found family. The two siblings at the heart of Montana Story, a new indie film helmed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, know this truth better than most. The past doesn't just haunt them, it's divided them into sharply diverging paths in life. Their turmoil is the emotional bedrock of Montana Story and does inspire some sharply-realized scenes. Unfortunately, some key stumbling blocks both narratively and visually can leave the audience feeling as distant from what's happening on-screen as the relationship between the two lead characters.

Cal (Owen Teague) is trapped in the presence of death. His father, thanks to a car accident, is now on life support in his family's living room. The ranch his old man oversaw is now going up for sale just so he can make the medical bills. Everything around him is withering away. Then, sauntering in like a cold gust of wind from the East is his sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson). Having moved away to New York City years earlier, she's come back into town upon hearing of her father's imminent passing. Erin has no regard for this man for understandable reasons, but she proceeds to stick around so that she can help save an old horse, Mr. T. Now that she's lingering longer than expected, it's only a matter of time before these siblings confront a past that hangs over their existence.

Initially, scenes like Cal talking to a shady banker or plot details about having to sell everything in his families house makes it appear that Montana Story will be telling a story about the financial struggles of rural people in 21st-century America, an ode to the plight of the country everyman in the vein of the works of John Steinbeck. We don't go down that route. Instead, the story primarily focuses on a fractured sibling dynamic, one that McGehee and Siegel tell with occasionally instances of oomph, but unfortunately, not a ton of insight. The duo have a bad habit of telling, not showing, when it comes to this relationship and the characters inhabiting it.

A scene where Cal pours his heart out to his father's caretaker, Ace (Gilbert Owuor), about the tragic events that separated him and his sister should be the apex of Montana Story's emotional power. Unfortunately, the didactic nature of the lines and the lack of human imperfections in Teague's delivery of these recollections makes this scene feel expository, not emotionally vulnerable. The fact that the story is almost exclusively told through Cal's perspective, meanwhile, also hinders the movie. Even the way the camera frames, Erin, whether she's getting money from an ATM or petting Mr. T, is framed through the eyes of Cal. These visual details eventually add up and make her feel less like a standalone character and more like an intruder on Cal's existence.

A story structure that can't quite make the disparate sources of conflict in Montana Story feel like they belong in the same (the subplot about getting Mr. T to New York is especially disparate) further hinders the movies potential. These shortcomings are a shame, because there's quite a bit to like in here. The Motnana landscapes are beautiful to look at. Wide shots of just expansive vistas shivering in the wind is more than enough to please the eyes. Moments of restraint also manage to land an impact. A scene where we see Erin kill a chicken, told with her back to the viewer, is especially interesting thanks to how much it leaves to the imagination. There's a lack of handholding from the camerawork here that gets one wondering what's going on inside Erin's head.

Speaking of Erin, when she first walks onto the screen complaining about how she can't get a phone signal, attempting to hail a Lyft, and name-dropping Venmo twice in mere minutes, I was worried she'd be a caricature of a "city girl" that the good o'l country boys would have to retrain to be "proper." Thankfully, that conventional narrative path is avoided and Haley Lu Richardson takes her down more intriguing trails in her performance. Though the screenplay and camerawork sometimes let the character down, Richardson often injects far more depth into Erin's gestures and facial expressions than what's on the page. Owuor does solid work in a supporting role that could've used more in the way of specific details and Teague delivers a similarly fine performance as Cal, even if the depth of this character sometimes exceeds his grasp.

Montana Story is one of those perfectly watchable movies that kept teasing me with hints of becoming something even better. Its visuals and performances are often enough to grab the eye, but your heart and brain yearn for those ingredients to be put to use on more substantive purposes. A compelling fractured sibling dynamic isn't quite enough to make sure that Montana Story can live up to its potential despite the film having its fair share of solid details.  

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