Montana Story is a Quiet Drama about Loss & Familial Obligations

Montana Story is a quiet family drama that unfolds under the big western sky. The film was written and directed by longtime collaborators Scott McGehee and David Siegel and centers on the fractured sibling relationship of Cal (Owen Teague) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), who haven’t spoken in seven years. They are together now because their father’s coma has brought them back to their childhood home.

Cal is a civil engineer in nearby Cheyenne, while Erin is a cook at a restaurant in the Hudson Valley of New York. We learn that a traumatic event occurred when Erin and Cal were teens that involved their father. It splintered their relationship and made Erin run away from home. Cal tirelessly has tried to track her down in the years in between, but he is never able to find out where she’s living.

When Erin returns home, she intends to stay less than a day. Her plan is to offer an obligatory goodbye to her estranged, comatose father and then she’s on her way back to New York. Cal begs her to reconsider and stay a little longer but isn’t until Erin overhears him making plans to put down their childhood horse that she decides to change her flight.

Cal sits inside of the truck and Erin stands on the outside. They're on the side of the road

Montana Story is a very meandering look at a sibling reconciliation in the face of a father’s death. It’s a story that’s been told many times, but this film does have a few aspects that help it stand out. The cinematography is stunning. It’s rare to see the vastness of the mountain west displayed on-screen in such a gorgeous manner. Places like New Zealand have recently stood in for the American West in The Power of the Dog. When a stand-in location is used, the distinct sense of self is lost. Montana Story benefits greatly by showcasing the big skies of Montana and its wide open fields. It’s a stunningly stark emptiness that elevates the theme of isolation.

Richardson continues to be one of the most interesting and talented young actors working. She has a quiet ability to express herself that adds power to her performance. Richardson’s Erin feels as though it’s an extension of herself. She is able to act in such a natural way that even when the script becomes a little monologue-y, she makes the audience believe it.

Whether it’s because of Richardson or the circumstances surrounding her character, the true flaw of the movie is not making Erin the lead. Cal is the audience’s introduction to the story and the focus of most scenes. The only issue is that Erin’s decision to return to Montana to face her father, who did something terrible to her in her teenage years, is vastly more compelling.

Cal and Erin in a field, looking down

Montana Story lacks a sense of tension. The audience is aware that Erin and Cal are estranged, but it isn’t until halfway through the movie that they learn why. There should have been a tension and awkwardness between them as they tiptoed around their past. There are only a few moments where it’s possible to feel their stiffness at being back in their childhood home. Their rooms are perfectly preserved time capsules of a different lifetime. It’s so stifling to Erin that she can’t even sleep in her room the first night.

Their father’s nurse, Ace (Gilbert Owuor), tells Cal that “it’s never easy.” Nothing with family is ever easy. There’s too much history and too many emotions. Familial bonds are complicated. Had the focus of the film shifted more toward Erin and had the script been tighter and more claustrophobic, Montana Story would have far surpassed other movies in this genre. The potential is there, but it was simply lost along the way.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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