“Never Steady, Never Still”
Mother and Son
Kathleen Hepburn’s feature film is filled with confidence as it brings us the story of Judy (Shirley Henderson), a mother in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease. At the same time, her 19-year-old son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin) is in the advanced stages of sexual confusion which become worse when he leaves the family’s home for a job in the oil fields of Alberta.
The film’s power comes from small moments with big existential rewards such as Jamie finding his mother struggling to clean an oven at 4 a.m., or when he has to lift the helpless Judy out of a freezing bath.
Visually, the film is stunning with British Columbia, providing a gorgeous juxtaposition backdrop for the intimate study of lives narrowed by circumstance. Filmmaker Kathleen Hepburn has expanded her award-winning short that was based upon her own experiences with her mother’s suffering with Parkinson’s Disease. The film is actually a study of familial relationships straining and strengthening under the pressure of serious illness.
Judy is a woman in her 50s who has suffered from Parkinson’s for 19 of her 23 years of marriage to Ed (Nicholas Campbell). The couple live on the very edge of the expansive Stuart Lake, where Ed helps Judy button her jeans and take her pills. They share a relationship of mutual care, affection and easy humor. Judy is fiercely independent despite her advanced illness. Jamie seems to be drifting through life. He spends most of his time with best friend Danny (Jonathan Whitesell). When his parents insist that he go off to work in the oil fields of Alberta, Jamie finds himself in a testosterone-fuelled world that forces him to quiet down and toughen up. When catastrophe strikes at home, Jamie must finally learn to step up to his responsibilities.
Henderson’s performance not only shows us the relentless motion of Judith’s disease but we also see the dignified resignation of a life lived with affliction. We do not get many performances of this caliber and it is often devastating to watch. We also witness
Jamie’s ongoing search for his place in the world. He is both drawn to and repelled by his mother’s disease. He struggles with the enormity of it as well as also dealing with his own issues, especially his sexuality; he briefly fantasizes about kissing Danny, and engages in a couple of short-lived fumbles with a bored prostitute and sweet, heavily pregnant local girl Kaly.
Shooting on 35mm, Norm Li’s expressive cinematography underscores the emotional tumult playing out in this peaceful locale. Long held wide shots take in the still isolation of the landscape, and some are painterly in their composition — a vase reflects the clouds, a boat rests on the shore. Similarly, the evocative score by Ben Fox has an aural duality, layering soft, reverberating chords over more frantic, pulsing strings.
Hepburn avoids the histrionics and melodrama often associated with such stories and instead gives a keen-eyed, compassionate observation of the impact of illness that. She does not avoid the disease’s emotional toll even as she celebrates the strength and sanctuary a family can provide.