As beautiful in its subtle simplicity as it is powerfully metaphoric, there’s an exquisitely edited sequence shortly into writer/director Michael McGowan’s true life effort about an elderly David facing off against the bureaucratic Goliath that stayed with me long after the final credits rolled.
Cutting from the sun-drenched shot of accidentally bleach-splattered laundry drying outside protagonist James Cromwell’s New Brunswick home to a seamless match cut of the same (now) snow-filled, laundry-free location – that one edit perfectly sums up how quickly time passes by – particularly with regard to the film’s two main characters who are in the winter of their lives.
Married for sixty-one years to Irene (Genevieve Bujold), the love of his life, Cromwell’s proud Craig refuses to acknowledge the escalating fears of his children and grandchildren who are concerned about the obvious signs of dementia, confusion and forgetfulness being displayed by their loving matriarch.
After a few close calls make Craig realize that their multi-level home is far too taxing for Irene to handle, he decides to build a much more manageable one-story property on a lot they own directly across from them that would boast an especially gorgeous view for his wife to enjoy.
Raised with the knowledge and skills of turning tree trunks into lumber and wooden planks into the walls of a number of houses he’s erected during his lifetime, it’s only after a nosy neighbor insists that Craig must go and pay for a permit that things go awry.
Relying on his busy grandson’s background as an engineer to draw up the blueprints for a home which he prefers to just see in his head rather than plan out with exact dimensions (despite figuring it will have a few doors and windows), it isn’t long before the city puts up a “stop work order” on Craig's half-built property and a full-out war begins.
Consulting his lawyer (Campbell Scott) and dropping several hundred dollars on fines and fees on the property that he’s owned all his life, after Irene takes a turn for the worse and he’s faced with the prospect of having to go against her wishes and put her in a retirement home, Craig pulls down the “stop” sign and goes to work.
Determined to complete the home that they both deserve in spite of threats to bulldoze the gorgeously-crafted abode and send Craig to jail, he keeps his head down and continues building.
While the film's framing device that establishes an extended flashback in which McGowan tells his tale never fully succeeds in paying off on a secondary collectible baseball subplot that’s easily overshadowed by the far more compelling nature of the overall David vs. Goliath plotline, the film is otherwise faultless in its earnest approach.
Led by Cromwell’s award-winning, immediately relatable performance that’s up there with the actor’s finest character turns in films including Babe and L.A. Confidential, the rest of the capable cast also loses themselves in the natural style of the contemporary work, given its neorealist roots and emphasis on reality.
Much like that aforementioned perfect edit, Still Mine is understated yet completely compelling as it takes its story from a real life battle and as such is one hundred percent universal in its appeal as we’ve all faced at least one uphill battle where red tape got in the way.
Nonetheless, Mine is hardly a politically charged attack on bureaucracy as you must also take into consideration that Irene’s medical care is being taken care of in Canada by the same government that’s at war with Craig.
And to his credit, McGowan shows us both sides of the issue and doesn’t interfere or sign-post in any overly obvious way so that you will take from it what you will.
What I kept thinking about was how wonderfully old-fashioned Mine was both in is structure as well as its Capresque cinematic lesson of helping your fellow underdog fulfill his inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
An American dream movie made by an American filmmaker on Canadian soil yet with humanism in place of flag waving, the work (which reunited McGowan with his Saint Ralph star Campbell Scott), is one of those rich tales about a real life Mr. Blandings’s attempts to build his dreamhouse that feels as honest as it is ageless.
Like a dramatic flipside to the comedic Blandings, Still Mine might’ve played just as well back then if not for some frankly modern-minded depictions of the still frisky after all these years love between the elderly husband and wife who (despite being in the winter of their lives) still look at each other like they were in the midst of a summer romance.
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