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Still: Palm Springs Review

Still Palm Springs Film Festival - H 2013
Samuel Goldwyn Films

The Bottom Line

The lead performances lend poetic nuance to a heartfelt story that tends to pander rather than delve deep.

Venue

Palm Springs International Film Festival

Opens

Spring 2013 (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Screenwriter-director

Michael McGowan

Cast

James Cromwell, Genevieve Bujold, Campbell Scott

James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold topline a down-home drama as a long-married couple confronting failing health and government bureaucracy.

PALM SPRINGS — A feisty oldster fights for his right to build a house in the gentle drama Still. The Canadian feature hews close to actual events as it traces a New Brunswick farmer’s protracted, and eventually publicized, tussle with bureaucracy. It’s also the story of a marriage challenged by illness, tackling some of the same questions posed by Amour but from a rosier and far less complex perspective. 

By turns ham-handed and quietly affecting, and too often lapsing into folksy fillips rather than truly exploring, the movie benefits enormously from the casting of James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold in the lead roles. Writer-director Michael McGowan’s depth of feeling for his characters is clear, but the accomplished performers infuse their parts with a tenderness and vulnerability more nuanced than anything in the screenplay. 

Picked up at the Toronto fest by Samuel Goldwyn Films and a Special Presentation at Palm Springs, the movie is slated for stateside release in the spring, when it’s likely to build upon a foundation of warm reviews and positive word of mouth, particularly among older audiences, for a modest theatrical run. 

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Rangy character actor Cromwell, who memorably played a farmer in Babe, steps front and center as Craig Morrison (the film retains the characters’ real-life names), an exceptionally hardy 87-year-old. He’s the kind of hands-on guy who still changes his own tires. There’s little he can do, though, about the diminishing returns on the mom-and-pop farm he and wife Irene have run for decades near St. Martins, on the Bay of Fundy. With beef consumption declining and new produce regulations that favor agribusiness over the little guy, his cattle and strawberries are no longer thriving enterprises. 

When the house he and Irene have shared for much of their 61 years together proves less and less manageable — in part because of maintenance issues, but mainly because of Irene’s increasing disorientation as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s — can-do Craig eagerly embarks on a plan to build a smaller house on their property, one that would provide a view of the water and a comfortable place for Irene. In part he’s resisting the prospect of outside help or assisted living, suggestions broached with varying degrees of insistence by two of his middle-aged kids, the flinty Ruth and more sympathetic John, convincingly played by Julie Stewart and Rick Roberts

Relishing the sense of purpose when the dwindling farm business has left him idle, Craig works alone, to the alarm of his kids and buttinski neighbor (George R. Robertson). Though his work meets the exacting standards he learned from his shipwright father, Craig finds himself on the wrong side of the building code, implacably enforced by an inspector (Jonathan Potts) whose humorlessness borders on caricature. Having ignored multiple requirements that he deems ludicrous, Craig faces imprisonment, and Campbell Scott shows up with a mustache in the small, dry role of his longtime attorney. 

Rather than develop its premise, McGowan’s screenplay belabors it, in its mellow way, reiterating the idea of reason vs. red tape from slightly shifting angles. But despite the on-the-nose dialogue and obvious music cues, Cromwell and Bujold hold the center wordlessly, and there’s loving regard in cinematographer Brendan Steacy’s close-ups of their magnificent faces. 

Playing well beyond their years, they imbue these octogenarians’ interactions with ease and intimacy, as well as sexual passion. As a farm woman who wears a pearl choker and frets over metaphysical questions even while struggling to grasp what’s going on around her, Bujold has a girlish resolve. Through Irene’s deepening medical crises, Cromwell conveys steely Craig’s gradual acceptance of the reality that he can’t fix everything. Most touching are the different ways that the past grows nearer for each of them. Craig’s paean to a dining room table he built is an elegantly written monologue that Cromwell delivers with characteristic vigor and restraint. 

McGowan (Score: A Hockey Musical) grounds the story in the setting without romanticizing the Canadian locations — mostly northern Ontario, with two days’ shooting in New Brunswick. The Morrison’s lived-in home as well as Craig’s work-in-progress cottage are strong expressions of character and place, thanks to ace work by production designer Tamara Deverell and her crew that pays tribute to the unpretentious beauty of artisanship.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

Opens Spring 2013 (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Production companies: A Mongrel Media presentation of a Mulmur Feed Co. production

Cast: James Cromwell, Genevieve Bujold, Campbell Scott, Rick Roberts, Julie Stewart, Jonathan Potts, George R. Robertson

Screenwriter-director: Michael McGowan

Producers: Michael McGowan, Avi Federgreen, Jody Colero, Tamara Deverell

Executive producer: Richard Hanet

Director of photography: Brendan Steacy

Production designer: Tamara Deverell

Music: Hugh Marsh, Don Rooke, Michelle Willis

Costume designer: Sarah Millman

Editor: Roderick Deogrades

No MPAA rating, 103 minutes