The film opens to a bouncing tide, painted in the vivid hues of an early sunrise. Gently occupying the silence is the delicate voice of Shirley Henderson, of Trainspotting and Harry Potter fame, who appears in a white nightgown waist-deep in the ocean, surrounded by purple waves and an otherworldly sky. Contrasted against the harsh landscapes of oil fields revealed later in the story, these beautiful juxtapositions lend Never Steady, Never Still its poignant composition.
Set in Northern B.C., the full-length feature tells the story of a family coping with the loss of a loved one. Emerging actor Théodore Pellerin is Jamie, a young man at war with his own emotional and sexual identity while Henderson plays his mother, struggling to assume control of her own life as she advances into the later stages of Parkinson’s disease. The film’s storyline is loosely drawn from the life of rising director and writer Kathleen Hepburn, and the North Vancouver-raised local admits the stakes felt quite high considering her proximity to the subject matter.
“It’s been a huge part of my life since I was about nine,” says Hepburn, who has been witness to the degenerative effects of Parkinson’s on her mother for the past 25 years. “Everything was very instinctual to me in telling the story, but it was also an extremely personal and difficult subject, so it was a balance of finding the honesty in the situation.”
Apart from the script, there were other challenges met by the Simon Fraser University alumna during the construction of her first feature. From shooting in the province’s remote north without any running water to securing theatres and festivals for the movie’s release, Hepburn understands all too well the trials involved in finishing an independent film. “Every challenge is new when you’re making a film, so there’s not really a lot you can do to be prepared,” she says, reflecting on the last two years. “Just trust in your instinct and everything will work out.”
And worked out it has. Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, the drama (which was originally released as a short in 2015) has garnered major acclaim, including nominations for eight Canadian Screen Awards; Hepburn herself even took home the Vancouver Film Critics’ Circle Award for Best Director of a Canadian Film. In March, Never Steady, Never Still celebrated its theatrical release in select Cineplex theatres throughout Canada, with extended dates going into Victoria on May 6 and 7, 2018. Despite its small footprint thus far, this is a film that deserves to be seen.
“I think when looking at people with long-term disabilities or disease, we often see them as victims,” Hepburn reflects over the phone. “I think that what we should be seeing is the strength they have and the perseverance they have every day, surviving and having loving relationships.”
Towards the end of the movie, Jaime comes home to discover his mother shivering inside a bathtub, unable to leave on her own. As he scrambles to cover her with blankets and sort through her medication, he eventually breaks down, frustrated by his shortcomings. “It’s not your fault. It’s my fault,” she consoles him, reading the pain in his face. In spite of her frail body, her words are firm—she should be the one caring for him. It’s this raw emotional exchange between mother and child that makes this such a meaningful story to witness.
Already at work on her next project, Hepburn is partnering up with fellow Vancouver director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers on The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. Set in East Vancouver, the co-written and co-directed feature centres on an unusual encounter between two Indigenous women on the street. The project is community-driven, involving the mentorship of 11 Indigenous youths.
With a firm foundation in B.C. and a focus on telling narratives filmed and based here, Hepburn is a unique local talent with great things on the horizon. All the rest of us have to do is sit back and watch her future unfold.