REVIEW: “Montana Story” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

The terrific Haley Lu Richardson’s latest is “Montana Story” and it’s the kind of earnest low-key family drama that I have a real soft spot for. Co-directed, co-written, and co-produced by David Siegel and Scott McGehee, “Montana Story” is a movie loaded with emotion yet handled with remarkable restraint. It makes sense considering the very story itself is about deeply buried pain, bitterness, and trauma. But not every filmmaker can resist the urge to soak this type of story in melodrama. Thankfully Siegel and McGehee do.

“Montana Story” actually premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival but is just now getting its U.S. release. It was filmed in late 2020 under strict pandemic protocols and shot over a six week period in Montana’s Paradise Valley. It’s a setting that fits nicely with the quiet melancholic beats of the storytelling. And the sweeping landscapes (wonderfully captured by DP Giles Nuttgens) represent a lot more than just pretty scenery.

Image Courtesy of Bleeker Street

The story revolves around two estranged siblings who return to their family’s river valley ranch where their father lies on his deathbed, comatose following a massive stroke. Cal (Owen Teague) is a civil engineer from Cheyenne who arrives at the ranch to get his father’s affairs in order. The first sign of tension comes with Cal’s desire to reconnect with the family’s 25-year-old stallion Mr. T before seeing his father who lies in his study connected to an assortment of life-sustaining machines. There he’s treated by a hospice nurse named Ace (Gilbert Owuor) and his longtime housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero).

Cal ends up with a lot on his plate. It turns out his father was a lawyer who helped shield companies from government oversight. His shady business dealings led to him filing bankruptcy and having to borrow against the ranch to get by. Now Cal will have to sell the ranch just to cover his father’s medical bills. And with no one left to care for Mr. T, Cal is left with no choice but to have a vet come to put down their beloved horse (an obvious yet rich reoccurring analogy).

But Cal is shocked when his sister Erin (Richardson) suddenly arrives unannounced. The two haven’t spoken in seven years, since the day Erin ran away from home following a horrible incident that ripped their family apart. “I just want to see him one more time,” she says using all the strength she can muster to hold in her enmity. And when she gets word that Cal plans on euthanizing Mr. T, the friction between siblings comes to a boil as the ugliness of their family’s history slowly comes into focus.

At times “Montana Story” looks and plays like a neo-Western (minus the gunfights and Stetsons). Other times it almost feels like a deconstruction of the genre. The movie is full of symbolism and impossible to miss metaphors while several side characters offer a unique indigenous perspective. And so many things bring texture and depth to the story – Mr. T, the gray Lexus belonging to Carl’s late mother, their deceptively idyllic farmhouse nestled in the shadows of the beautiful mountains. All of it adds meaningful layers that Siegel and McGehee use to great effect.

Image Courtesy of Bleeker Street

But the heart of the movie is Cal, Erin, and their frayed relationship. Richardson and Teague take well-measured approaches to their roles and do a good job conveying the very different yet intrinsically linked pain and resentment buried within their characters. Both give understated performances and the sibling chemistry between them is true and organic. Richardson is especially convincing as a wounded soul who’s strong but carrying a lot of baggage.

A part of me wishes Siegel and McGehee would have done more with the supporting players as they all seem to have interesting stories to tell. But in the end I appreciate their choice to stick to their two central characters and the trauma, resentment and disappointment that binds them. We know where things are heading; that an emotional eruption is all but inevitable. But the movie never overplays the tension. The story remains focused and the performances are rich enough to give us glimmers of hope for a reconciliation.


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