An intimate drama about a family disbanded by abuse, Montana Story is superbly acted, but lacks a formidable narrative capable of carrying its protagonists. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, whose body of work includes What Masie Knew and The Deep End, their latest feature feels too self-contained to truly shine. While it effectively emulates the peaceful, slow pace of living on the range (as long as you’ve got plenty of hired help, that is), the story is itself a sparse build-up for an emotional blowout that feels overwrought in contrast to the film’s otherwise subdued tone. Montana Story works best when its two leads are allowed to traverse the subtleties of unresolved tension, encroaching upon and retreating from each other’s presence in order to test boundaries that have long since crumbled. Even if the script doesn’t quite sparkle, the film’s greatest achievements are in its tiniest details—particularly the delicate emotional dance executed by its central duo.
After his father suffers a stroke and falls comatose, Cal (Owen Teague) takes it upon himself to get his old man’s affairs in order. He shoulders each task with weary resolve, though he also carries an unassured sadness about each major decision. Cal attempts to settle the mess of his once affluent father’s bankruptcy, the fate of the ranch’s few remaining animals, and the firing of the family’s long-time housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero). One thing he doesn’t account for, though, is the return of his estranged sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), who left seven years ago and hasn’t returned since.
Cal’s facade of relative cool immediately begins to crack, conceding to childhood insecurity and pain. He’d been trying for years to get in touch with Erin, but could never find any information regarding her phone number, address or general wellbeing. Seeing her back on the homestead they grew up on reopens old wounds that are somehow still fresh, and the siblings must reckon with what their mutual absence has meant for each other—and how losing their father will no doubt exacerbate whatever chasm has grown between them.
Richardson is given the meatier of the two roles, airing inconsequential grievances about her homecoming while also remaining intensely guarded. Meanwhile, Teague consistently channels an introverted complexity for Cal, never betraying much about his honest attitudes toward any given situation. Though he disagrees with Erin’s decision to buy a beat-up truck and a horse trailer in order to drive her 25-year-old horse Mr. T up to New York (where she’s been secretly residing in the Hudson Valley), Cal goes along with his sister to test out the ancient, crappy pick-up and pay the owner. Predictably, it only gets them halfway home before it sputters out on the side of the road. But instead of saying “I told you so,” he accompanies Erin to a beloved natural landmark that they visited as children.
This is why when their troubles finally come to an explosive head, it almost betrays the careful emotional tightrope walk that’s been so expertly maintained by the two actors. The over-written dialogue they exchange is merely an opportunity for the filmmakers to cram in as much exposition as possible before the story concludes. If McGehee and Siegel understand one thing, it’s that an intimately shot drama should reveal its fair share of intimate details, and this climactic reckoning attempts to do just that. However, the conversation’s melodramatic overtones feel incongruous within a film that was never all that interested in emotional highs. Thankfully, Richardson and Teague handle the exchange with as much believable vulnerability as possible. By Montana Story’s conclusion, the pair are once again able to inject each question, expression and response with the bittersweet essence of two siblings-turned-strangers—who nevertheless choose to fortify their bond from scratch.
Admittedly, it’s irksome that the film’s ancillary characters all happen to be people of color employed by the family to perform varying degrees of domestic labor. In addition to the Indigenous Valentina, there’s Ace (Gilbert Owuor), the father’s live-in nurse who hails from Kenya. While the siblings struggle to reconcile the paternal abuse they suffered (or ignored) in their youth, these characters are left to unceremoniously do the grunt work that facilitates their stay back home. Even Valentina shoulders much of the burden of the siblings’ falling out, having maintained a line of communication with Erin behind Cal’s back. In fact, Valentina is the one who tips Erin off about her father’s condition in the first place (to be fair, she made herself virtually unreachable to her brother in the wake of her departure). Yet these vital characters are hardly platformed, the siblings too steeped in rehashing painful memories to meaningfully interact even with those in their immediate vicinity.
But a singular focus is essentially the draw of Montana Story. It doesn’t bother with grandiose gestures or multi-pronged plot elements. Instead, it lingers on the tiniest details in order to fill in the blanks—pop star posters in childhood bedrooms, the bright red blood of a freshly slaughtered chicken, horses running on an open plain. These minute elements carry a raw power and beauty that feels ultimately undermined by the film’s melodramatic boiling point. While Richardson and Teague bounce off of each other with fluid chemistry, the film is too fractured. With a jarring tonal shift and underutilized secondary characters, Montana Story begs for a bit more substance—even if the prospect of quietly absorbing the charm of Big Sky country is certainly alluring in its own right.
Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Writers: Scott McGehee, David Siegel, Mike Spreter
Stars: Haley Lu Richardson, Owen Teague, Kimberly Guerrero, Gilbert Owuor, Asivak Koostachin, Eugene Brave Rock
Release Date: May 13, 2022
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan