Parkinson's, grief and sexuality: Why I can't get this film out of my head
Kathleen Hepburn: 'At the heart of it all, we all just want to be loved and to be seen for who we are'
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
While the majority of Canadians are likely more fixated on the movie awards shows of our southern neighbours than they are our own annual cinematic celebrations (myself admittedly included), this weekend marks the kick-off of a nationwide event that should help change that: Canada's Top Ten.
Showcasing a juried selection of the country's 10 best feature films and 10 best short films, the initiative — in its 17th year — is spearheaded by the Toronto International Film Festival but will tour across the country, with multiple screenings planned in Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal. And while I'd recommend taking in as much of the selection as you can, one film stands out for me personally: Kathleen Hepburn's fearless directorial debut Never Steady, Never Still.
Ever since I saw Never Steady at TIFF last year, I can't get it out of my head. The sensitive, achingly intimate film primarily details a mother and son grappling with grief as they try to navigate their own deeply personal struggles. The former, Judy (Shirley Henderson), is battling Parkinson's Disease, while the latter, Jamie (Théodore Pellerin), is struggling with his sexuality as he tries to manage a grueling job in the Albertan oil fields — hardly the best place to consider one's potential queerness.
It's a synopsis that hardly feels uplifting, but like all great films about adversity, there's catharsis in watching Hepburn's story. Her own mother has been living with Parkinson's disease for over two decades now, and it "has had a profound effect" on her family and how they relate to each other.
I think there is a certain beauty that comes out of those things we struggle with because it's through this struggle that we can see our strength.- Kathleen Hepburn, filmmaker
"When I was writing a script about family, it was only natural that that struggle became a part of that story," she tells CBC Arts. "I think there is a certain beauty that comes out of those things we struggle with because it's through this struggle that we can see our strength."
As for Jamie's storyline, Hepburn says that it came "from a lot of different places" — but in terms of his sexuality, she wanted "to try and express that feeling of needing to belong, of searching for someone who really sees you no matter where that comes from, but also this idea of friends or lovers moving at different paces from one another."
"For me, Jamie's story was about loneliness and our desire for human connection, and how that gets wrapped up in sex and our physical desires especially when we're young," Hepburn says. "I don't think I had any intention of expressing something specific about sexuality aside from the idea that at the heart of it all, we all just want to be loved and to be seen for who we are."
Quebecois actor Pellerin (who played young Antoine in Xavier Dolan's It's Only The End of the World) is extraordinary as Jamie, though the film's acting centrepiece is his on-screen mother. Henderson — a Scot whose long list of previous work includes everything from the films Trainspotting and Bridget Jones' Diary to series like Southcliffe and Happy Valley — is given quite the canvas for her talents in Judy, and Hepburn was beyond grateful to help provide it.
"Shirley is a phenomenal actor and such a joy to work with," Hepburn says. "We had reached out to her fairly early on when we were putting together our financing for the film. It was pretty clear to us that she would be incredible for this part, so we just wrote her a letter and sent the script and crossed our fingers. And once she came on board she did a good deal of preparation on her own over in Scotland, focusing on three specific individuals with Parkinson's and trying, through body work and repetition, to allow the movement to sort of live in her body through muscle memory."
Hepburn leaned on her own mother quite a bit as a consultant, filming with her then sending the recordings over to Henderson and talking about it. Once Henderson was in Canada for the shoot, she and Hepburn went through the script together and mapped out the character's progression, trying to decide how her symptoms were manifesting on any given day. Their collaboration results in what is easily one of the best performances in a Canadian film this past year, and is reason alone to find your way to Never Steady, Never Still. Another is to be inspired by the fact that this is Hepburn's first feature film, even if its elegance wouldn't suggest it. It's a long time coming, following a decade of award-winning short films that have screened at festivals around the world.
"I think I've always been a feature filmmaker at heart," Hepburn says. "I find shorts very difficult. With the feature script I felt I was finally able to breath and express myself at the pace I wanted to have. So I was very eager to make this jump. I would say to young filmmakers that it's important not to rush — that sometimes things take a long time to get made because they need that time to steep and to get better, so just enjoy that process and try to keep your eyes on the present as much as possible."
In the meantime, get your eyes on Never Steady, Never Still.
Never Steady Never Still. Starring Shirley Henderson and Théodore Pellerin. Directed by Kathleen Hepburn. January 12-21. Canada's Top Ten Film Festival. www.tiff.net