Review: MONTANA STORY, Relatable Family Drama Bolstered By Its Central Performances

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: MONTANA STORY, Relatable Family Drama Bolstered By Its Central Performances

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Families. When they’re not literally or figuratively raising you up, they’re bringing you down.

It’s nowhere near as simple as that formulation suggests, of course. Far from it. Families can leave legacies that can take an entire lifetime to unravel, whether it’s a selfish, narcissistic, uncaring parent or an abusive one, who we are and what we become often depends on how we raised.

That universal experience, in turn, makes it all the more understandable why artists (playwrights, novelists, and filmmakers) have come back, again and again, to families, theirs and others, for material. In some ways, writing or making a film about a particular family in a specific time and place functions for the artist — and by extension, the audience — as a form of therapy, though the expected catharsis may not be as forthcoming or as exhaustive as desired.

It’s no surprise, then, that Montana Story, the latest film by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (What Maisie Knew, The Deep End, Suture), takes a deep, often profound, dive into a family broken by a tyrannical father and the long-term, maybe irrevocable effects that a single man, Wade (Rob Story), can have on his two grown children, Cal (Owen Teague), a twenty-something returning home to Montana more out of obligation and duty than love or affection, and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), Cal’s older half-sister who left the family homestead suddenly under enigmatic circumstances. Where Cal, despite a fractured relationship with his dying father, continued to remain connected to his father, Erin cut off all ties, essentially running away from home and disappearing for seven years, location and life unknown.

Cal’s return to Big Sky Country (i.e., Montana) doesn’t come as a surprise to his father’s principal caretaker, Ace (Gilbert Owuor), an African-born nurse, or Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), the longtime family housekeeper. Both welcome Cal with varying degrees of compassion or empathy, fully understanding that there’s no love lost between Cal and his dying, mute father.

That father, once a cruel, arbitrary godlike figure dispensing old-school, Old Testament-style wrath on his children, may be a small, shrunken figure now, but to Cal — and later Erin — he’s the living embodiment of the trauma, grief, and guilt he's never been able to overcome in any meaningful, long-lasting way.

For Cal, home only to handle his father’s affairs and close out the family business, selling off the family's remaining assets to cover Wade's medical bills and outstanding debt, there’s only obligation and a desire to return to the life he’s created for himself elsewhere. Erin’s abrupt, unexpected return, however, throws Cal’s plans into immediate disarray.

In small, intimate scenes filled with minimal dialogue, weighty silences, and freighted glances aimed at each other, Cal and Erin’s unreconciled relationship moves to the foreground, along with the family’s history both personal and professional, the latter specifically Wade’s dubious financial deals and legal work related to economic exploitation and political dispossession of the area’s Montana’s indigenous population.

McGehee and Siegel smartly stay away from the usual traps and tropes typical of family dramas, letting Richardson and Teague’s superbly layered, often emotionally raw performances to inform the unfolding relationship dynamics between their respective characters. Lesser skilled, lesser confident filmmakers would instead rely on expositional dialogue or unsubtle flashbacks to reveal character backstories or the foundational moment when their relationship shattered.

For Erin, saving the family’s aging horse, Mr. T., from being euthanized becomes something of a quixotic, obsessive quest, a chance to save something (if not someone) from the past she left behind. It might sound simplistic or reductive, but between McGehee and Siegel’s unobtrusive direction and Richardson and Teague’s naturalistic, lived-in performances, it becomes something else altogether: An optimistic, hopeful chance at redemption and reconciliation. 

Montana Story opens in movie theaters today (May 27), via Bleecker Street.

Montana Story

  • Scott McGehee
  • David Siegel
  • Scott McGehee
  • David Siegel
  • Mike Spreter
  • Haley Lu Richardson
  • Owen Teague
  • Gilbert Owuor
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David SiegelGilbert OwuorHaley Lu RichardsonMontana StoryOwen TeagueScott McGeheeMike SpreterDrama

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