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'Never Steady, Never Still' beautifully captures poverty, illness, and loss

'Never Steady, Never Still' beautifully captures poverty, illness, and loss

Written and directed by Kathleen Hepburn, Never Steady Never Still depicts the challenging life of a woman who tries to stay in control of her life as she approaches the late stages of Parkinson’s Disease. Meanwhile, her younger son faces battles of his own, concerning his identity and sexuality in a conservative social climate. The film beautifully captures the dullness and darkness that can exist when this family faces poverty, illness, and loss in different forms. (FEA 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Intern Farah Elattar

Never Steady Never Still stars Shirley Henderson as “Judy,” a middle-aged wife and mother whose life becomes harder and harder as her Parkinson’s gets into more advanced stages. She lives with her son “Jamie” (Theodore Pallerin) and her husband “Ed” (Nicholas Campbell).

Despite the beautiful ocean views from their house, one can tell the family leads an austere life, with rather dated cars and appliances. They live in a remote area in Canada, where an oil field work camp seems to be the only “way out” for many of the young people there. Judy leaves her house rarely (because she is unable to) mainly to go to her weekly Parkinson’s support group. She tries to be independent despite her disease slowing her down, and relies on Ed and Jamie to accomplish the tasks she cannot do anymore.

Judy’s support system begins to break down when Jamie leaves for the oil camp and Ed falls ill and dies, leaving her alone to adjust to living by herself with a crippling disease in a remote area where people must rely on self-sufficiency for survival.

One cannot write about this film without mentioning and praising Shirley Henderson’s amazing acting. Her attention to detail is remarkable, and she is pictured portraying the various hurdles that come with being a person suffering from Parkinson’s. Excruciatingly long shots show her trying to put on her shoes, to get in the car, or to button her shirt—tasks that may seem trivial to the average person, but that can take immense time and effort for a Parkinson’s patient.

Henderson completely wowed me with her performance. Her attention to detail in her portrayal of the disease shows how much preparation she must have put in to learn what late stage Parkinson’s looks like, sounds like, and even feels like, as she is extremely successful in conveying emotion in her voice and body language. She truly owns Judy’s complex character, one full of pain, grief, and still serene acceptance for her circumstances. As she says in response to Ed’s passing, “Death is a gift from God, just as life is.” Henderson is able to convey what is definitely Hepburn’s vision for the character: Judy does not evoke pity within the viewer. Rather, she is a character who symbolizes strength, resilience and hope.

Kathleen Hepburn’s depiction of the disease complements Henderson’s acting in a way that is truly awe-inspiring. She is able to steer away from the drama and tragedy usually associated with disease in many commercial films, and instead presents Judy’s Parkinson’s as a fact of her life, as one aspect that she has to deal with on a daily basis. Judy never has a heart-wrenching conversation with her family about how her disease is affecting her. Instead, everyone comes to terms with the disease individually and quietly, and this feels true to the ways in which people sometimes deal with long-term illness in real life.

Parallel to Judy’s narrative is her son Jamie’s quest to find himself and figure out his own path, in a situation that keeps pulling him away from that journey of self-discovery. He is in his early twenties, and is depicted as a confused young man, still heavily influenced by his father’s ideas (it’s important to note that the father is the one to send Jamie to the oil camp). Jame is truly unable to find a moment of honest introspection.

Hepburn adds another layer to this character, by exploring his confusion about his sexuality. As Jamie attempts to carve his own path, he is pulled back home by the death of his father, and realizes that his mother needs his full-time care. He seems to be trapped in the small world that is their hometown, and cannot venture beyond it, at least for the time being. His identity crisis leads him to lash out at times, but ultimately ends in more questions than answers. I believe Hepburn uses his character to portray the crisis that is familiar to many small-town young adults, as they feel that there must be more to the world, but cannot seem to let go of the family and community that have become dependent on them. Nevertheless, Hepburn’s portrayal of this tight-knit version of family ties seems unclear: is it a healthy thing that Jamie and Judy seem inseparable? What will happen to Jamie when Judy’s body inevitably fails?

A very aesthetically pleasing film, Never Steady Never Still is truly a beautiful depiction of a complex world—a world affected by death, illness, and poverty, but one that also thrives through family.

© Farah Elattar (8/20/18) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Shirley Henderson as “Judy.”

Middle Photo: Shirley Henderson as “Judy.”

Bottom Photo: Théodore Pellerin as “Jaime” and Shirley Henderson as “Judy.”

Photo Credits: levelFILM

Q: Does Never Steady, Never Still pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Yes!

Judy and a friendly cashier (Mary Galloway) become friends, and talk about their lives and hardships.

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