Montana Story is a notably tender film, patient both in its flaying of old wounds and in sewing seeds of healing.
Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s Montana Story is a somber, gentle neo-Western set in the achingly beautiful Paradise Valley, where Big Sky Country is punctuated by snow-capped mountains and long, lonely highways. In the film’s slim but affecting plot, Cal (Owen Teague), an engineering student in Cheyenne, returns to the family ranch after his father, Wade, suffers a stroke. Wade, a powerful attorney who bought the ranch out of vanity rather than passion, isn’t dead yet, but close to it — he lays comatose in the study, surrounded by a warren of life support machines and cared for by a kind and wryly funny nurse from Nigeria named Ace (Gilbert Owuor).
In the film’s first few minutes, we see Cal handle a number of depressing but necessary errands, rifling through a box of past due bills and preparing to sell the ranch and his late mother’s car to help make ends meet. This grim but unremarkable tableau is all too common in a country where medical misfortune often leads to bankruptcy, and others in Cal’s orbit, like the longtime family housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), also struggle to get by. But any commentary on late-capitalist economic hardship among rural Americans takes a backseat to a more conventional family drama when Cal’s estranged half-sister, Erin (an always welcome Haley Lu Richardson), suddenly reappears. Ace, Valentina, and her laid-back son Joey (Asivak Koostachin) fill in some of the gaps, with Valentina standing in as a trusted and capable surrogate mother while Ace, an outsider to the region and the family, finds himself both nurse and confidante to the embattled siblings.
At nearly two hours, McGehee and Siegel take their time revealing the circumstances that drove Erin away from the homestead seven years ago, a decision that left Cal alone with their abusive father. Teague’s lanky frame and narrow, stoic face carries the repressed bewilderment of someone haunted by circumstances he doesn’t fully understand but can’t bear to examine. Richardson, who excels in memorable yet understated indie films like Columbus and Support the Girls, plays Erin with entirely believable emotional range. One minute she’s pacing the cramped ranch house muttering “I never should have come back” to herself, the sight of her comatose father no less threatening than if he were bearing down with raised fists. Later, she slaughters and roasts a chicken from the family roost with detached efficiency, wordlessly extending her cooking skills like an olive branch. Teague and Richardson convincingly portray the awkward, fumbling moments of sibling separation and reconciliation: Cal’s torrent of updates while Erin sits stone-faced in the passenger seat, plowing on as if he’d been saving this conversation for years; their tense visit to a gutted gold mine, whose interests their father represented and which scars the landscape as legibly as the emotional scars left on his children.
Cal and Erin take solace in one of their few remaining sources of comfort, an aging, arthritic horse named Mr. T. Throughout the film, Erin fixates on Mr. T’s fate, pledging to take him with her to upstate New York. Her efforts to find a suitable truck and trailer for the journey are an obvious distraction from the situation at hand, but never feel tiresome. In a sweet and tender scene, Joey and Erin drive back to town together after she and Cal get stuck on a deserted highway. His good-natured personality seems especially bright when trained on Erin, almost hinting at a past romance, or at least a deeper relationship than what either of them discuss outright. These hints at the characters’ history give the otherwise simple story a depth that’s all the more effective for being only partially illuminated.
Lest Cal and Erin rely too heavily on well-timed glances and cagey body language, the film’s third act is the exploding grenade to the preceding action’s stealthy tripwire. When a massive storm puts their father’s life directly in their hands, a near-decade of regret, rage, and unanswered questions stampede to the surface. But for all the flaying of old wounds, Montana Story manages to end on a note of healing, and maybe even a little hope. Unlike their father, who has already written all the chapters in his story, Cal and Erin’s story as adults, peers, and maybe even friends, is just beginning.