TIFF 2021 Review: “Montana Story”

Featured image: Haley Lu Richardson as Erin and Owen Teague as Cal in Montana Story. (Courtesy of TIFF.)

Directed by Scott McGehee, David Siegel. Written by Scott McGehee, David Siegel, and story by Scott McGehee, David Siegel and Mike Spreter. Starring Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague, Gilbert Owuor. Runtime 1h 53 min. Montana Story played at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11.

I love a good heartfelt drama, but I picked Montana Story as one of my TIFF films because Haley Lu Richardson is one of my favourite working actors. I’m glad her acting brought me to my first Scott McGehee and David Siegel film, their first directorial effort since What Maisie Knew (2012). The way they handle family drama and trauma is raw and beautiful, and Montana Story makes me want to prioritize checking out the rest of their projects.

In their newest film, Montana Story, Cal (Owen Teague) is called back to his family ranch in Montana when his father has had a stroke and is on life support. He’s being cared for in his home by live-in nurse Ace (Gilbert Owuor). Soon, Cal’s estranged sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) also returns home, wanting to see her father one last time. She’s eager to get in and get out; but only stays when she learns that Cal has been recommended to euthanize a healthy, aging horse on the farm, Mr. T, one of the horses from their childhood. These horses represent their childhood and freedom in interesting ways.

Their relationship is fascinating as we unpack what happened within this family and why Erin has been gone for so long. In a Neo-western like this with the characters and settings being such an important factor, the acting is so important, too. The two stars, especially, are up to this task. Owen Teague impresses and shows his dramatic range, something I didn’t realize he had in him, having only seen him as the creepy Patrick Hockstetter in It and It: Chapter Two. There’s one powerhouse emotional scene with Haley Lu Richardson where he totally holds his own, and helps make it one of the most emotionally crushing scenes I’ve seen this year.

Haley Lu Richardson, too, delights in the role of Erin. She’s become one of my favourite working actors because of the role choices she makes,, and her range. She can make a bad film better (as an ambitious gymnast in The Bronze), shine in horror films (Split) and play positive, bubbly personalities so well (Support the Girls). She’s at her best playing reserved characters like Erin, hesitant to let people in (similar to her sometimes self-destructive character in Five Feet Apart, or her role in Columbus).

Haley Lu Richardson as Erin and Owen Teague as Cal in Montana Story. (Courtesy of TIFF.)

Erin is one of her best characters yet, a layered woman who has compartmentalized her trauma, as we unpack that throughout the film. She comes home to Montana; and immediately wants to leave this place again. I like her performances best when her characters have these walls up. She plays that dramatic, reserved side of the character so well, but it’s wonderful watching people get past these walls, as we watch her open up. It’s a delight because of how she plays it, and it’s rewarding learning what makes Erin tick.

Her character is a core heart of the film, as is her relationship with Cal, so scenes where they talk about what happened are emotionally raw and showcases some of the film’s best writing because of how real it feels. The parallels that McGehee and David Siegel use to discuss the father is interesting: Their dad is in a coma, basically lights out but still has brain activity, and the discussion to euthanize their family horse Mr. T is an interesting since it applies to their father, as well.

The father at the centre of it all, unresponsive but the reason they’re here, is a fascinating framing device in how he still has such power over them. Everyone already talks about him in past tense. “My dad hated classical music,” Cal tells Ace. Using him as the central pain of the film is what makes certain scenes of acting much more powerful. As well, seeing this as a film about healing from trauma by going back to the place that was once so comfortable is brilliantly handled in Montana Story. What’s impressive is that never feels melodramatic; simply always honest.

Besides the characters themselves, this film might as well be a tourism advertisement for the beauty of Montana. Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography is gorgeous, highlighting the landscapes, and it looks beautiful even in simple scenes of Erin riding a horse, Mr. T, with landscapes in the background. The cinematography here definitely has put Montana on my bucket list. The film’s great score complements these visuals so beautifully, too, and some scenes had me in awe.

Score: 88/100

Montana Story played at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11.

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