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Taking Care of Business

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TIFF

MOVIE REVIEW
Montana Story (2021)

Imminent death has a way of bringing the living together, whether that’s what they want or not. Blood responsibility and the requirements of endings – not the same thing as closure, which is a cherry on top – mean that last chances are a compulsion almost impossible to ignore. When the setting for this reckoning is the chilly Montana prairie, where regular people work several jobs in a second-hand coat to survive, there’s a harsh immediacy not found in more comfortable and/or populated places. Here the secrets are all out in the open.

Most of them, that is. Cal (Owen Teague) has been summoned to the family ranch now that his father is in a coma. His mother died in a car crash some years ago, and his father is now on life support in the living room, tended by a Kenyan nurse, Ace (Gilbert Owuor) and a part-time Native American housekeeper, Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero). The father is bankrupt, and the ranch is being sold off to pay his debts, sickness or not. Cal is in his early 20s, young for all this responsibility, but since his older half-sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson) ran off while they were both still in high school he’s not really had a choice.

But, thinking her father is dead, Erin comes back after all. She tries to sneak into the house and when Cal stops her in shock there’s a brutally awkward confrontation. In all non-verbal ways Erin makes her discomfort and unhappiness clear – until she realizes Cal’s old horse, Mr. T, is still alive in the barn. He’s an elderly creature, receiving little exercise; and when Cal mentions he’s about to be put down, Erin gets into a Lyft and drives off. But then the car reverses back up the driveway and she gets back out again. She thought Mr. T was dead, and she will not leave him again. Cal tries to argue but that is that.

Erin’s quest for a truck with a horse van to drive Mr. T home with her propels the rest of “Montana Story.” She and Cal were very close as children, despite a raising designed to keep a wedge between them, and Cal took Erin’s vanishing as a terrible betrayal. But of course that story has two sides, and as they run errands in Paradise Valley it comes out naturalistically – although it’s helpful to have Ace, with his calm competence of someone used to handling people at their worst, around to explain things to. Co-writer/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have a wonderful ear for how people circle big subjects with banalities, taking the measure of each other in chat about the Wi-Fi password or optimal storage methods for car batteries. The leisurely sequence where Cal and Erin check out an old truck for sale by the gentle Mukki (Eugene Brave Rock) is really about them testing whether they can trust each other again. Giles Nuttgens’s uncluttered cinematography makes you feel the weather, both literal and emotional. Erin had a horse of her own as a child, and the story of what happened to him is just one of the plot’s creeping horrors. But then the truck breaks down, Erin’s resolve for total self-reliance begins to crack, and Cal slowly addresses the fact there’s more than one mean son-of-a-bitch under his father’s roof.

Ms. Richardson – who’s perfectly typecast as a capable young woman kicking against how the world mistreats her – is just wonderful, with Erin’s stoical matter-of-factness (look at how she kills the chicken) covering a deeply bruised heart. Mr. Teague, a former child actor who’s made his name in horror, delivers the keenly nuanced performance of a man finally deciding to stand up to his shame. But the intimacy between Cal and Erin doesn’t allow much space for Ace, Valentina, or Valentina’s cheerful son Joey (Astivak Koostachin), who Erin dated in high school, to have a story of their own. The betrayal the siblings are wrestling with impacted everyone they knew, and it’s a shame the movie doesn’t cast a slightly wider net. We have seen a lot of movies about the Cals and Erins of this world and not enough about the Aces, Valentinas and Joeys. It’s past time for movies to give a full reckoning to every player on its stage. But for what it is, “Montana Story” is a mature and delicate exploration of how people can’t hide from themselves no matter how far they run. Whether Cal and Erin will be brave enough to face facts head-on is the question.

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