The drama unfolds around an estranged brother and sister (Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson) who have returned home after their father (Rob Story) suffers a stroke, falling into a coma. Teague’s Cal is the younger sibling, but it’s been left up to him to settle the estate, little of which remains besides a mortgage on the run-down ranch, and a 25-year-old stallion named Mr. T.
Richardson’s Erin — Cal’s half sister — is the same age as Mr. T, but she ran away when she was 18 after enduring years of physical abuse by her father. Erin has never forgiven her father, nor has she spoken to her brother in years, wounded by his failure to stand up for her when she needed him. She’s come back to Montana to see her father one last time, planning for only a quick visit — until she learns that Cal plans to put the ailing horse down. Erin changes plans, declaring that she intends to take the animal back with her to Upstate New York, an impractical scheme that clearly seems like displaced concern.
This kind of fraught dynamic is ordinarily the stuff of high-pitched melodrama. But the filmmakers let the story unspool slowly — perhaps too slowly. Certain plot points seem like the antithesis of drama: A parent hovers on life support; a truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere; multiple passages of extended, bitter silence. In this sequence of unhurried scenes, a quiet car ride feels like a major event.
Yet the slowness echoes the characters’ reluctance to confront their personal issues. It likewise seems in tune with the spartan setting, in which you can drive for hundreds of miles and feel like you’ve not gone anywhere.
There’s a tempo to the silence. As the old man’s live-in nurse, Ace (Gilbert Owuor), explains to Cal — teaching him how to massage his father’s motionless limbs — even a body in such a compromised state has a rhythm, “like conversation.” Still, when conversations take place out loud, the dialogue can feel stilted. This happens when Cal pours his soul out to Ace about his strained relationship with Erin. And when Erin points out that the strata of a canyon resemble Dante’s circles of hell, the literary reference seems forced.
“Montana Story” is more effective in its reticence. One of the most moving scenes is largely wordless: During a long drive, Cal tells his sister about the car crash that killed his mother two years ago. Erin says nothing at first, but her body language speaks volumes. She avoids looking at her brother, though her face seems pregnant with emotion, while Cal looks to her for some kind of connection. When he tries to break the ice by bringing up a seemingly unrelated incident from high school, it’s like the body’s communication that Ace referred to earlier: an attempt to mimic the rhythms of conversation, while avoiding whatever is too painful to articulate.
The lead actors are perfectly convincing as Cal and Erin work out their strained relationship. Teague (“It”) is a steady presence, but also uncomfortable, as suits a young person just beginning to shoulder responsibility beyond his years. Richardson — so good in “Columbus” and “Support the Girls” — takes on a more mature role here, and she expresses her character’s trauma with subtle power. Whether driving a dilapidated pickup or riding Mr. T one last time, she looks utterly at home in this 21st-century western, as Erin’s restrained emotions play out across the actress’s expressive face.
At times, “Montana Story” feels like a road movie, taking place in real time, through a seemingly endless vista. Is the trip worth it in the end? Despite some frustrating detours, yes.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains strong language. 113 minutes