Kathleen Hepburn’s feature debut, Never Steady, Never Still, viewed at Toronto International Film Festival 2017, leaves a lot to be desired. Théodore Pellerin stars as Jamie, a young, aimless man living in Alberta, Canada. He struggles with his identity and sexuality while his mother, Judy (Shirley Henderson) attempts to deal with the progressing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. But with underdeveloped characters who rely on garish representations of difficulty, the film is never sensitive enough to its subjects.
Henderson’s representation of disability feels has a sheen of masquerade as she pulls faces and behaves grotesquely, surrounded by the knowledge that she’s putting on the act of an illness that true sufferers can never escape and that others understand far more deeply. For a brief section of the film, we get a better sense of Judy’s life. First cared for by her husband, when he passes she must live on her own. We watch as daily activities become more difficult for her, and we see how she is judged harshly by able-bodied people in the community. But this sojourn into Judy’s characterization is brief and abandoned in favour of an expansion of Jamie’s story.
While Judy struggles to perform everyday tasks, Jamie, meanwhile, spends his time grappling with potential queerness — something which only truly crystallizes by the film’s third act. He otherwise spends the runtime harassing girls, hanging around misogynistic boys, and receiving a blow job from a sex worker, playing on the stereotype that men who aggressively act out their homophobia and misogyny are doing it out of shame of their queerness — something which demonizes gay men more than it does a society which stigmatizes sexuality.
Despite the final articulation of Jamie’s confusion, the film culminates in a sexual encounter with a woman. It’s the 17-year-old Kaly (Mary Galloway) who guides Jamie through his first truly pleasurable sexual experience, and Kaly thus fulfills her roles as a manic pixie dream girl who may re-instill a sense of heterosexuality in questioning men.
Disability is synonymous with tragedy, and gay men might be construed hateful losers who can be saved by sex with women. With cold grey tones and shaky handheld filming, Never Steady, Never Still has the visuals of a typical, serious, austere drama. But paired with its lack of nuance in characters necessitating complexity, the film moves from formally boring to potentially offensive and absurd.