‘Montana Story’: Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson Are Siblings Confronting Grief in Understated Drama

Two estranged siblings come together to say goodbye to their abusive father and tackle some demons in the quiet drama “Montana Story.” Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson star as Cal and Erin, who are reunited after seven years at the deathbed of their comatose father, Wade (Rob Story) at his farm. While the backdrop of mountains and wide open land may have seem like an idyllic setting, the pair’s childhood was anything but.

Teague anchors writer-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s film as young Cal, who possesses a maturity beyond his years. At age 23, he has a career and his own place not too far from his father’s. Although the older man is already in a coma at the start of the story, having suffered a stroke, the viewer catches on pretty quickly that father and son are not close. We come to learn that Wade was not a good man, but McGehee and Siegel make the case that grief and pain are inevitable even when an asshole dies. Cal returns home out of duty to settle his dad’s affairs, and the tension in the air is palpable, although he does his best to put on a brave face in front of Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), a Native American woman who has been Wade’s housekeeper for several years. His death means that she will be losing an important source of income, which also impacts her son, Joey (Asivak Koostachin), who also works on the property.

During a recent interview with Entertainment Voice, Teague revealed that he was so blown away by the screenplay that he could not believe it was a complete original. “[McGehee and Siegel] just wrote it from their imaginations, and it felt so real and so lived in, even just on the page. It also had this kind of quality that I don’t see a lot, which is that it felt like reading a play… It was completely original, but it had this theater quality, and I love that. I love getting to do theater, so that was cool.”

The unexpected arrival of Erin, 25, who left home at age 18 and cut off contact with her father and brother, disturbs Cal’s plans to quietly bury his father, as well as opens up old wounds. Although it was Wade’s terrible abuse that caused her to flee into the night seven years prior, she feels compelled to say goodbye to her father. She wants the visit to be quick, but Cal seems torn between respecting her wishes and wanting to mend their relationship. 

Even though Teague’s own family background differs dramatically from Cal’s, the actor found it surprisingly easy to connect with his character. “I’m not honestly sure why that is,” he admitted. “It’s probably because it was a really good piece of writing, and I had really good people to work with, mainly Haley and Scott and David.”

Indeed, Teague and Richardson are well matched, and the grief and swirl of emotions Erin and Cal are feeling are channeled into an argument about what to do with Mr. T, their beloved 25-year-old horse. As Cal is about to sell the farm, he feels that the humane thing to do is to put the horse down. Erin, however, sees this as murder, and insists that she be allowed to haul the animal back with her to upstate New York. Taking an animal in his twilight years on a cross-country journey does not sound like that the most rational choice, but Cal and the viewer feel for her when we come to understand that this is her desperate bid to hold onto something from her childhood, the one decent thing from her past life. 

Teague recalled how he formed a connection with Richardson right away. “Which is great, because [Cal and Erin] needed that kind of really close bond while not being able to access it at all, while hiding it from one another, or while Cal tries to get it back and she doesn’t let it. So, it was wonderful to do it with her and have that kind of relationship off screen, because it just really filled in all the stuff on screen.”

The actor gives an understated but heartbreaking performance as Cal tries to reconnect with his sister, the only close family member he has left, only to have her initially push him away. He finds an unlikely therapist in Ace (talented newcomer Gilbert Owuor), the kind-hearted nurse looking after Wade. Far away from his own family in Kenya, Ace provides a listening ear for Cal in some of the film’s best scenes. Through their conversations, we come to learn about the burden Cal has been carrying these past years, in addition to his feelings of abandonment.

“Montana Story” was filmed in a bubble during the pandemic, which means the cast and crew only had each other to lean on during filming. Teague recounted how this amplified his performance. “It made it safe in a way emotionally, but it was also very scary, because the world was falling apart everywhere else. There was a lot of uncertainty about what was happening and what the future was going to look like, and that I think translated into Cal in some way… because Cal has a lot of uncertainty and insecurity and shame. There wasn’t any shame in covid, but it added to that ‘I’m walking on unsteady ground. I don’t know what the next step is going to be.’”

Finally, filming on location in Montana gave “Montana Story” an authentic feel, and it was another factor that impacted Teague’s acting. He explained, “In terms of the performance, I feel that that really opened me up to things in some way that maybe I had not have been open to otherwise. Subconsciously, there was a freedom in being there, because it’s so big and you feel like such a small person. I was just at the mercy of everything else.”

Montana Story” releases May 13 in select theaters.