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TIFF Discovery: A Shirley Henderson Master Class and a Wild Argentinian Family

by Sean Donovan

The films featured in TIFF’s ‘Discovery’ section are sometimes given short shrift by the media and the festival at large. Already arriving with the disadvantage of being announced last, and thereby with the least amount of time for anticipation to brew, these small modest productions (many of which are debut features for their directors) are easily buried underneath the hype of awards season giants and glitzy red carpets. If that’s the macro view of things, in micro the audiences that find their way to ‘Discovery’ films are incredibly eager and anxious for the chance to look at films that may never find healthy distribution outside of festival spaces. Here are two of the absolute highlights of TIFF’s ‘Discovery’ program:

Never Steady, Never Still

The visceral frosty chill of Never Steady, Never Still is among its most potent elements. Shot in rural Alberta, Kathleen Hepburn’s camera captures the pristine beauty of the region but also it’s unrelenting difficulty: huge mounds of snow and ice trapping soulful characters just trying to do their best to survive. Among these characters is Judy, played by Shirley Henderson, a woman coping with an ever-worsening condition of Parkinson’s disease. Judy struggles to maintain a self-sustaining life with the limited help from her son Jamie, who works in the oil fields, and a groceries home-delivery clerk Kaly (Théodore Pellerin and Mary Galloway, respectively, and both thrilling discoveries).

Frequently I’ve been uncomfortable with able-bodied actors taking on roles where they essentially perform disabilities, particularly in the context of awards bait and prestige cinemas. Kathleen Hepburn appears to anticipate these issues by giving a lot of the floor of Never Steady, Never Still, in a cluster of scenes, to a real-life Parkinson’s support group which inspired the film (Hepburn’s mother has Parkinson’s disease). Henderson masterfully conveys the physicality of Parkinson’s disease, but it is among the least important aspects of her characterization, instead bringing to the fore Judy’s inner life with dedicated precision. With her instantly recognizable paper-thin squeak of a voice working to her advantage, she conveys a kind and sentimental woman determined to live and embrace her body for what is. In one heart-breaking scene, Judy confesses, in a whisper as if she’s barely willing to confirm the words she’s saying, that she wonders if her family would have been better off without her.

The morose sadness of Never Steady, Never Still at times threatens to overwhelm the viewer, but the film expertly avoids wallowing in histrionics through the film’s delicate sensitivity. This allows room for joy, poignancy, and emotional breakthrough. In a stunner of a set piece in the front seat of a truck on a freezing Alberta night, Jamie and Kaly’s casual flirtation leads Jamie to his own sexual epiphany. This sympathy and nuance extended to all characters reveals that Never Steady, Never Still’s title refers not just to Judy’s body but to all bodies, clumsily processing emotional and physiological transitions and attempting to still stand upright in the process. The film’s motifs of ice and water illustrate this beautifully: bodies stuck rigidly in place against porous hopeful weightlessness in the water.

Grade: A-


TIFF justly compared this debut from husband and wife team Schnicer and Guardiola to the work of Argentine master Lucrecia Martel, also at the festival with the divisive Zama, who shares a similar affinity for simmering family tensions amidst a volatile, mysterious natural world. TIFF’s description of the film emphasizes two of the characters, Rina (Marilú Marini), a feisty old woman determined to keep her land in the face of encroaching developers, and her more business-minded son Facundo (Agustín Rittano) who feels their ownership of the land is inevitable. Unfortunately for Tigre, this storyline is rather similar to that of Sonia Braga in the recent Brazillian film Aquarius, and Aquarius sold it with more conviction.

But Tigre is a much more complicated beast than one storyline, presenting an inter-connected cluster of characters without singling out anyone as more important than anyone else. There is Elena (María Ucedo), Rina’s friend, who arrives with her daughter Meli (Ornella D’Elia) and Meli’s friends Sabrina (Magalí Fernández) and Estebán (Tomás Raimondi), Rina’s housekeeper, the housekeeper’s injured son, and the son’s mysterious friend, a teenage girl who appears to live wild amongst the rivers and wildlife of the Tigre Delta. The film’s disorganization feels enticingly surreal in its early scenes, presenting the lives of these characters before they come together in a logical order. In one scene of jarring sexuality, the mysterious girl and two male friends play a sort of game in the forest that involves placing tape on each other’s bodies and quickly ripping it off, while making animalistic noises. The scene goes unexplained but vibrates with cagey adolescent energy.

In the Q+A following the film, the directors confessed that the screenplay of Tigre merges many strands of ideas for different stories together. Those seams are readily apparent, the film feeling less like a concise whole and more like an anthology. But it’s a thoroughly stirring and exciting debut, full of elegant mystery and crackling character tension that promises a strong career to follow.

Grade: B+

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Reader Comments (4)

I enjoy myself some Shirley Henderson. You're right that this program doesn't get enough attention and I'm suddenly feeling guilty for having skipped it.

September 14, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Commenting partly to make sure that these reviews don't go as underappreciated as TIFF's Discovery section! Neither of these films were on my radar at all - even though I'm a fan of Shirley Henderson - and you've made great cases for both of them. Thanks for bringing them to my attention!

September 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMat

Thanks for bringing these under-appreciated cinematic gems within our radar.

Like you I am also a fan of Shirley Henderson -- a talented actress with very specific thespian gifts. Loved her in Topsy-Turvy especially her "The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze" number. That mirror scene before her big number was quietly devastating. Love her wispy Joy in Todd Solondz Life During Wartime and her supportive pregnant Glory White in Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff.

September 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

In Discovery I saw DISAPPEARANCE. (Weirdly there was also another film of the same title in Contemporary World Cinema, so it was confusing.)

DISAPPEARANCE was one of my favorites of the festival, about a young couple navigating the limitations of the Iranian health care system during to cultural (and sexual) restrictions. Seriously one of my favorite directorial debuts of the year as well - I suspect we'll be hearing more from Ali Asgari. And I really hope this is Iran's Oscar submission so that it can get the attention it deserves.

September 16, 2017 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

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