Written by Patrick Hao
In just a short time, Haley Lu Richardson has become one of the most dynamic actresses in American cinema. She has an ability to adapt into whatever locale she is placed in, whether it is suburban California in Edge of Seventeen, a Hooters-esque restaurant in central Florida in Support the Girls, or even in the rough and tumble farms of Montana in Montana Story. Richardson’s naturalistic acting style brings so much life and authenticity beneath the surface of all the characters she plays.
Montana Story feels like it will become a minor work in Richardson’s promising career, but it certainly continues to be a showcase for her immense talent. She plays Erin, a 25-year-old who returns to her family farm in Montana to see her estranged comatose father. Also, there is her estranged brother Cal (Owen Teague), who has been handling the burden of their father alone.
The childhood ranch is a lot like the fractured relationships of this family: rundown, hollow, with no farm animals but a few chickens and an old stallion. A deep rift fissured the family when Erin revealed to the newspaper that her father was covering up a toxic chemical spill at a local mine leading to their father beating Erin half to death, while Cal stood there frozen.
Large landscapes like Montana have always been used as a backdrop to intimate emotions. Half of the best westerns ever made were built on that. However, despite great performances from Richardson and Teague, who are able to create quiet intimacy, the script by writer-director duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel, often falls to the rote cliché side. This could be fine if the directors had taken the movie in a more melodramatic space like a Douglas Sirk western melodrama, but to stay quietly intimate hurts the film.
The movie also hints at other more interesting aspects of the inhabited surroundings that go strangely unexplored. The Keystone Pipeline protests, and controversy is mentioned on the radio, indigenous characters and actors populate the periphery, and a sweet Kenyan nurse (Gilbert Owuor) taking care of the leads’ father hints at an interesting backstory but never goes beyond. To populate the background with BIPOC characters certainly gives the world more depth but they never go beyond that function. What does it mean to them that Cal and Erin’s father is a man that would cover up environmental crimes? Whatever the case is, Montana Story is an engrossing drama on the effects of abusive parents. None of it is new or surprising, but we continue to see great work from Haley Lu Richardson. Owen Teague holds his own as well. And honestly, sometimes just setting a movie against the beautiful vast landscape of Montana is enough to make a movie worthwhile.