Montana Story: 2,000 Miles Apart, by David Bax
Having visited Montana for the first time less than a year ago, I can testify that there really is something to the whole “Big Sky” thing. Of course, I know that the sky is the same size everywhere but I think it’s a matter of contrast. In the polluted population centers where I’ve spent my entire adult life (and which I have no intention of giving up), the sky is an adornment, subject to the goings on of the people and their buildings and cars below. In the parts of Montana I saw, though, the sky still reigns; people and their attendant structures and equipment all seem temporary, like the whole state is a national park and its inhabitants merely long term campers. This perspective is crucial to Scott McGehee and David Siegel‘s Montana Story (where the sky is captured in widescreen 35mm grandeur by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens) and its story of interpersonal familial strife that means everything to the handful of people it encompasses but has little effect on the world at large.
As far as I can tell, neither McGehee or Siegel (whose previous work includes 2001’s The Deep End, a masterful remake of Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment) is from Montana and I could neither confirm nor deny the origins of “story by” credit sharer Mike Spreter. But even if their notions of the state are entirely invented, what’s important is that it all feels right. Even more valuable, it all feels personal, like the movie itself is working through the same emotional history as estranged siblings Cal (Owen Teague) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), reunited upon the occasion of their comatose father’s imminent death.
Part of that regional authenticity comes through in the way that Montana Story resembles a Western, full of landscape vistas and the genre iconography of boots, hats and horses. If it truly is a Western, though, it’s a thoroughly modern one. Characters call Lyfts, provided they can get service through Verizon, and then VenMo each other their part of the cost. And the guitar plucking on the soundtrack comes courtesy of present day indie folk star Kevin Morby. It’s not the same as being a “revisionist” Western (whatever that even means anymore) but the news reports about the ongoing legal proceedings following the Standing Rock pipeline and its protestors remind us that it would take some level of willful ignorance to go on preferring the popular myths of the Old West to reality.
In the moment, though, Cal and Erin don’t really have time to think about all that. McGehee and Siegel score major points in casting their two leads, who give unselfconscious performances that are fully present and, often, fully heartbreaking. If they seem to lack a familiar big sister/little brother chemistry, the reasons for that will emerge naturally, if painfully. Outside of Andy Muschietti‘s It (I only saw the first one), I was largely unaware of Teague, so his sincere sensitivity was a welcome surprise to me. Richardson, on the other hand, is quite simply one of the finest actors in her age range currently working. Her bright but unembellished ease has mostly been showcased in supporting roles (The Edge of Seventeen, Support the Girls, After Yang) but, only a couple years after having not only carried but elevated Justin Baldoni‘s Five Feet Apart, she proves again here that she’s more than capable of handling whatever material is tossed her way.
Well, with one exception… As with so many actors her age, she probably doesn’t smoke cigarettes in real life. That’s good! Cigarettes are bad for you! But it also shows in the one scene in which Erin, supposedly a practiced smoker, lights up like a middle schooler trying to look cool in front of the older kids in the woods behind the subdivision.
But that almost vanishingly minor complaint is of little concern when compared to the massiveness of Montana Story‘s achievements. “Estranged family members reuniting” is such a malleable story vessel that you could pour as much or as little into it as you wanted. McGehee, Siegel, Richardson and Teague commit to filling it to the brim with incidents and emotions big and small, treating each with the same loving care. They’ve filled their vessel with humanity and beauty.