Montana Story: Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s Neo-Western

The effects of trauma on Estranged Siblings

Owen Teague plays a youngster dealing with dying father’s affairs in “Montana Story.” Photo: Bleecker Street

Montana Story could take place anywhere. The film’s subject is universal: the awesome power that parents exert over their children and the damage they can do.

Montana Story is the new feature from the brilliant indie writing-directing team of Scott McGehee and UC Berkeley alum David Siegel, behind Uncertainty, The Deep End and What Maisie Knew. but the story it sets out to tell stands on its own.

What Maisie Knew told the story of two wholly inadequate parents through the eyes of their little daughter. In “Montana Story,” the children are older and the damage is done, but the lingering effects are ongoing.

The movie begins with a young man, Cal (Owen Teague), showing up at the house where he grew up, a place set on a huge stretch of land set against surrounding mountains.

Dad has had a stroke, and now that he’s brain-dead, Cal arrives to be present at his father’s death, to pay debts, to prepare for the liquidation of the family property.

From Cal’s reaction to his father’s physical presence and mental absence, one gets the impression that Dad was frightening and still inspires anxiety while comatose.

Cal’s sister, Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), is a little older, a child by a different mother. Erin hasn’t been in touch with the family in years, so her arrival is a surprise. She’s angry and traumatized, and over time, we find out why.

Pasts are revealed, present issues are resolved, and a course is indicated for the future.

Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague as estranged siblings in “Montana Story.” Photo: Bleecker Street

The austere beauty of the locations: Montana with its big sky and mountains, standing as mute witnesses to the mistakes repeated by generation after generation. The mountains are both invitations for people to be equally big in spirit and silent rebukes to those who choose to be small.

Subtly, the movie touches on various aspects of childhood trauma. Cal reproaches himself for not having stood up to his father, not quite realizing that, in his recollections, he is picturing his adult self, not the completely overpowered child that he once was.

Erin hopes to get from this unconscious dying slab that was her father what she could never get from him in life. This is impossible, and she is too intelligent not to know that it’s impossible going in, so she has another reason to be angry.

Wisely, the movie resists indulging in flashbacks. Instead, it lets us imagine how bad things were.

In its focus on family and on the landscape, “Montana Story” would seem like the kind of earnest movie that came out of the Sundance Film Fest in the 1990s–but this is not one of them.

Teague and Richardson make for a convincing young brother-older sister dynamic in that she goes into every interaction with him assuming he’s an idiot, until he proves otherwise.

The film serves as a breakthrough for Teague and confirms the promise that Richardson showed in Edge of Seventeen.

 

Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.

Running time: 114 minutes.