Excessive regulation is the bugaboo at the center of Still Mine, a dreary tale of geriatric love and determination buoyed by an irritating libertarian streak. Juxtaposing the seemingly arbitrary workings of official bureaucracy with folksy good sense and old-fashioned know-how, Michael McGowan’s film follows the efforts of stubborn old cuss Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) to build a new house on his rural property for the benefit of his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife, Irene (Geneviève Bujold), while continually running afoul of the local zoning board—a touch of Kafka transplanted to maritime Canada.
As far as films about couples dealing with the female partner losing her mind go, Still Mine is pretty pedestrian. Lacking the sensitivity of Sarah Polley’s Away from Her or the brutal relentlessness of Michael Haneke’s Amour, McGowan’s film settles for an unmodulated grimness whose lack of ebb and flow mirror the mule-like determination of Craig to always do things his way. There’s little drama in that man deflecting the efforts of his children to move his wife into a home since he’s so completely inflexible. The only real conflict is between Craig and the local zoning board, an entity for which he only has contempt, but whose dictates he’s nonetheless forced to comply with at the risk of having his house-in-progress bulldozed by the town.
Craig’s first run-in with the local bureaucracy occurs early on in the film when one of the buyers of his farm-grown fruits informs him that he can no longer patronize him because his product isn’t stored in regulation coolers. That’s just a warm-up, though, for the zoning board that instantly gives our man fits. Using the building methods his father taught him, Craig has no use for the types of certifications that the board requires, frequently butting heads with their most prevalent representative who insists on such outrageous measures as Craig actually having a blueprint for the house he’s building. Our man’s homespun wisdom can only hold off this slimy representative for so long, and soon he’s being hauled into court on contempt charges.
McGowan’s celebration of folk tradition rings false from the first note. From Craig’s genuine befuddlement that building regulations even exist, and his failure to understand that they might exist for a legitimate reason, to the eventual portrayal of the zoning board as an evil entity bent on destroying the would-be builder out of pure vindictive spite, Still Mine posits libertarian principles as the only alternative to unnecessary regulation which inevitably leads to both abuses of power and the sadistic enforcement of labyrinthine sets of rules. In his big moment in court, Craig outlines these principles in a speech that’s one-half watered-down statement of civil disobedience and one-half common-man’s wisdom comparing the art of building to the game of baseball in an association that relies far more on an appeal to supposedly middle-Canadian values than to any kind of actual logic. But logic is the tool of the bureaucrats, even if only they can understand their own twisted regulations. Unquestioned adherence to tradition is Craig’s and the film’s preferred method of running a society.