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Judy (Shirley Henderson) has spent much of her married life dealing with Parkinson’s disease. She attends a support group and takes a lot of medication, but often needs help to perform the most menial of tasks. However, when her husband dies suddenly, Judy has to learn to take care of herself. Her son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin), meanwhile, tries to help her financially by taking a job in the oil fields of chilly northern Alberta. As she fights through a debilitating disorder, Jamie’s dalliances with drugs and difficulty fitting in with a hyper-masculine workplace threaten to derail his livelihood.

Never Steady, Never Still is a film with enormous empathy for its lonesome main characters. Writer-director Kathleen Hepburn provides space for Henderson and Pellerin – the former a compelling character actor, the latter one of TIFF’s Rising Stars – to bring insight into these lost souls without relying on reductive plot points. Their performances are disarming, and Norm Li’s long takes trap us within each character’s emotional turmoil. It may be painful to linger on the pressures that Judy faces at home, and Jamie at work, but these observations help to illuminate their similarities.

Hepburn shot much of the film in rural B.C. and Alberta. The vast lakes and brutal tundra provide perfect backdrops for her characters’ solitude. One could complain that the drama doesn’t build to much of a climax, and ends abruptly. However, the circular, often tragic experiences of these characters would not fit a more traditional narrative. Take these bruising and exceptionally moving performances for what they are: among the finest in contemporary Canadian cinema.

 

Is Never Steady, Never Still essential TIFF viewing?

Yes. The story may be raw and even challenging for some, but Henderson and Pellerin’s layered performances help to alleviate the harshness of the subject matter.