Montana Story basically whittles down the family drama until you have only two siblings, some likable side characters, and an undeniably compelling case for why you should quit your job and buy a ranch up North. It’s a calm, inoffensive movie about the simultaneous fracturing and rejoining of relatives in the midst of a death, one that leans more heavily toward making amends than deepening those fissures. Not very memorable, but not bad either. The only thing is you expect maybe a little more from the directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose string of intriguing independent hits like the vaguely surrealistic crime thriller Suture and modernized adaptation of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew have set a better precedent.
Montana Story begins with Cal (Owen Teague), a reserved Country Boy with a perpetually worried face, returning to his childhood home on a sprawling ranch to attend to his comatose and dying father’s affairs. Family friends Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero) and Joey (Asivak Koostachin), two Native American townies previously employed at ranch, are the only ones there to welcome him. His half-sister, Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), has cut off contact from the family, a result of what we later learn was a violently abusive episode between her and her now nearly-dead father.
When Erin does show up, tensions arise over differing approaches on how to handle things, like selling off various properties and the fate of an aging horse. Eventually, underlying trauma reveals itself as the root of the tension. These revelations inject a compelling amount of darkness into the otherwise placid story. The details of the abuse between Erin and her father, which began when her mother died during her birth and after she exposed his shady business dealings in the school paper as a high schooler, come slowly but painfully, unearthed in conversations between her and Cal regarding his inability to intervene. A kind, preternaturally wise nurse who goes by Ace (Gilbert Owuor) acts as a mediator between the two. Gently, he attempts to bring Cal to a place of acceptance and confidence in the midst of his feelings of powerlessness, and instill a sense of grace in the understandably bitter Erin.
An interesting but somewhat underdeveloped note wafting through the story concerns the relationship between Natives and white people. The fact that Cal and Erin, despite their pain, live highly privileged lives, doesn’t get passed over. But it doesn’t really get interrogated, either. The film keeps the main focus on the kids and their relationship, and in a somewhat tedious way. Predictable may not be the right word, but there is a certain expectedness in the beats and the feeling. Scenes of arguing followed by more lighthearted reminiscing. Struggling to understand one another. Quiet, slightly poignant scenes of unspoken connection. An explosive event that forces a reckoning. The best scene is when Erin finally comes out and confronts Cal about the ways he specifically failed to protect her from their father. Still, because we know the details and the impact already, there’s not much of a punch. It’s more of a release, but not from a terribly tight grip. We know the drill.
There’s room for stories about complex grief. A lot of people have troubled relationships with family members they’ve lost, resentments that can never be addressed and breaks that cannot be mended in the wake of someone’s permanent absence. Movies have gone there before, and yet grief remains such a mystery to so many. Often-times misguided attempts at comfort at coping preoccupy those experiencing grief, and especially those trying to help the grieving. Montana Story seems to know these things, but does little to illuminate them further. | Nic Champion