In theaters now, family dynamics play a significant role in Scott McGehee’s and David Siegel’s Montana Story. Featuring native Phoenician Haley Lu Richardson as Erin and Owen Teague as Cal, McGehee, and Siegel, who also co-wrote the screenplay, set out to tell a dramatic story of a dying father whose estranged kids have returned home.
The co-directors’ technical achievement sets the stage for an emotional tour-de-force that will haunt you and hug you long after the final credits roll. Sound is an essential part of the experience as Cal comes home; creaking wood flooring adds to the eerie feeling of an old house as if it is alive as Cal navigates through his childhood home. A feeling of dread and sadness fills the character, though McGehee and Siegel don’t reveal their hands too early in the film, allowing for a natural progression of the characters to happen. Montana Story is not a horror film, per se, though if strained family dramatics set in the heart of a dying patriarch is a scary thought for you, then it could be perceived as such.
Erin eventually returns home. Richardson plays the character as jilted and jaded. As her arc unfolds, we discover she has every right to be. A sense of distance exists between Cal and Erin, becoming more apparent as the story expands.
Two characters, Valentina and Joey, are the colloquial gatekeepers of the family. Kimberly Guerrero plays Valentina. Her quiescent role as caretaker helps Cal and Erin build a foundation of trust and an early sense of healing that the story bears out; both emotions from Valentina are extended to the audience.
The soft-spoken Joey (Gilbert Owuor) is a mediator to their father, who is comatose and unable to speak. Joey teaches them how to communicate with their dad. Cal, who has a more easy-going relationship with Joey, is more responsive than Erin. Valentina’s and Joey’s presence serves to calm and soothe the nerves.
The natural beauty of the Montanan landscape encompasses Montana Story’s dramatic character arcs, courtesy of Giles Nuttgens’ stunning cinematography. Nuttgens finds intimacy in his exterior and interior shots; most of the scenes inside the home or within the ranch’s main home are dimly lit, focusing on the characters or their action. The camera does not frequently move inside the house, evoking a sense of stillness, and allowing the sound effects to play on the audience’s other emotions. There is room to breathe in the Big Sky country outside the compound.
Erin and Cal’s stories are one of the reasons why we go to the movies. There’s a visceral feeling to the emotions that McGehee and Siegel create. However, the technical achievements can only take the film so far, and despite the smoothly flowing arcs, the middle of the film struggles under the weight of silence, gracing us as we get lost in our thoughts. The silence loses the film’s intimacy, and it is not in service of the characters or the overall film.
Still, Cal and Erin are incredibly colorful characters, visually referencing Dante’s Inferno directly and metaphorically throughout the film. As you watch the movie, you can see the nine circles of Hell depicted in the acting throughout.
That’s what makes Montana Story such a unique family drama; two kids have to ward off their pasts and wade through the emotions of a dying father and the aftermath. The memorable characters that line the film are markers of their history and future.
Family politics aside, the technical achievements that Montana Story achieves make for an interesting film to watch. Richardson and Teague hold their own continuing to show their dramatic stripes, and even with the awkward silence in the middle of the film, Montana Story is a rewarding watch.
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Screenplay by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Story by Mike Spreter, Scott McGehee, and David Siegel
Starring Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague, Gilbert Owuor, Kimberly Guerrero, Eugene Brave Rock, Asivak Koostachin
R, 113 minutes, Bleeker Street