Montana Story

Montana Story is a film of uncommon depth and meaning. Although it incorporates a few elements that are typical in family dramas, the way it assembles those elements is original, and what it uses them to say is insightful. Utilizing the state of Montana as a backdrop is perfect. The majesty of the landscape, captured here in gorgeous cinematography, reminds us of the beauty in life. At the same time, the wide open expanse serves as a metaphor for the emotional distance the two main characters attempt to bridge.

Cal (Owen Teague) has returned to the family home where his father is receiving hospice care. He's saddled with trying to pay off the debt that his dad incurred and figuring out how to pay for nurse Ace (Gilbert Owuor) and housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero). There's also the matter of Mr. T, the aging horse out in the barn. Because there's nowhere for the animal to go, having it put down seems like the only feasible option.

As all this is going on, Cal's estranged sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) unexpectedly shows up to say her goodbyes to the father we can tell she holds great resentment toward. Almost as much resentment, in fact, as she has for Cal. Upon hearing that he plans to have the horse euthanized, Erin decides that she will purchase a pickup and trailer from a Native American man on a nearby reservation and drive it home with her to upstate New York. Despite finding the plan foolish, Cal agrees to help her.

Over the course of two hours, Montana Story peels back the layers to reveal what happened to these people. We learn what drove Erin away, why she holds anger toward her father, and the source of the barely repressed guilt Cal has been carrying around with him. That might sound like standard domestic drama, but the way filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel handle it is not standard at all. They go for complete realism. Most films about family strife - even the good ones - can feel written. Revelations will come at perfectly-timed moments, dialogue will be wittier or more structured than how people speak in real life. Here, revelations pop out unexpectedly, and the conversations between Cal and Erin are filled with the natural awkwardness that occurs when everyone has a lot of complicated emotions they're afraid to let out. 

Teague and Richardson make that dialogue come to life. He perfectly conveys the sorrow Cal feels knowing the sister to whom he was once inseparable has become distant, as well as the cautious hope that a bad situation can somehow be rectified. She, meanwhile, is grippingly subtle as Erin, palpably suggesting the inner rage that this young woman is struggling to contain. Both actors give performances full of nuance and shading, guaranteeing that every scene between them is electrifying, even as the overall movie studiously avoids histrionics. 

I really liked the first 90 minutes of Montana Story. The last half-hour is when I realized how special it truly is, though. In that final section, all the story's ideas and themes pull together with such poignancy that I found myself profoundly moved. If the movie has a core idea, it's that life is messy, and we have only two choices – to allow the messiness to continue, or to take a good, hard look at ourselves and ask what sacrifices we need to make in order to instigate change. Cal and Erin figure that out and make their choice.

Again, it's the naturalism of the film that causes it to work. A lengthy sequence has the siblings driving to the reservation, meeting the Native man, Mukki (Eugene Brave Rock), and watching as he tunes up the truck he wants Erin to buy. Not much outwardly happens, yet the body language and tension between brother and sister make the scene absorbing. That's Montana Story in a nutshell – quietly observant and intensely personal.

out of four

Montana Story is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.