City folk, like me, often forget how beautiful America can be, as well as the rejuvenating power of the great outdoors and the solitude it provides. I say this only because Michael Schwartz’s short film Montana, opens with the gorgeous vista of Flathead Lake in Montana interrupted by the faint howl of a wolf.
If the howl sounds suspiciously fake, you’d be right as we meet Dan (Chris Henry Coffey) the wolf impressionist and Maddie (Jennifer Mudge) walking through the lakeside forest. As Dan is howling, Maddie questions whether wolves howl in the daylight. The know-it-all Dan explains wolves howl anytime and for many reasons like defending their territory or attracting a mate.
Watching the brooding Dan seems a little off because he is a full-grown adult. Dan explains his knowledge of wolves comes from books and museums and one day hopes to be a park ranger like his dad, which turns the discussion quickly to his abusive father—causing Dan to run off. The concerned Maddie chases him, and just as Dan readies to hit her over the head with a large tree branch, she grabs it and quickly dismisses the behavior. Soon, Dan shifts to the personal of an angsty teenage girl.
Here Montana raises a few questions, the main one being, “What’s up with Dan?” Like a good short, Schwartz opens his film with something out of the ordinary, in this case, Dan. Why is he acting this way? Why is he pretending to be a teenager? Is Chris Henry Coffey as Dan a really bad actor? Of course, answering these questions just gives away the reveal. No, Coffey is not a bad actor.
“Watching the brooding Dan seems a little off because he is a full-grown adult…the discussion quickly to his abusive father—causing Dan to run off.”
Montana is about trauma. Schwartz is addressing the subject of trauma not from the perspective of its victim, but from the parents’ point of view. Again, without giving too much away Dan and Maddie are engaged in, as the press kit says, an “unconventional method” of treating one’s traumatic past.
As a short film, writer/director Michael Schwartz put together a visually compelling short. The Montana backdrop is breathtaking, and it would have been a sin to screw that up—kudos to the DP John Schmidt. The acting is by Coffey and Mudge is good, especially when you realize that Coffey’s performance at the start is meant to be awkward.
The story is where I shudder a bit. On its own, I was left with several questions about what happened to the protagonists in the past and about the specific location in Montana where the story takes place. A short film should stand on its own, but I had to research the film, filmmaker, and the Lucas Academy afterward for personal clarity. The purpose of a short usually is to tell a self-contained story, but a short can exists solely to start a conversation, and that’s what Montana does.
With trauma, there can be a light at the end of the tunnel, and many who make it to the end feel the calling to go back and help others find their way too. Montana shows that going back is not easy, and we’re never really 100% normal, but it’s all worth it in the end.
Montana (2019) Written and directed by Michael Schwartz. Starring Jennifer Mudge, Chris Henry Coffey.
7 out of 10 stars