Conventional wisdom has it that advanced age means diminished agency, but it ain't necessarily so. In the fact-based Canadian drama Still Mine, Alzheimer's cruelly erodes one half of a couple while the other proves that giving up is not an option.
Hewing closely to the true story of Craig Morrison, writer-director Michael McGowan tells a tale of aging with dignity and, albeit with a certain Canadian gentility, raging against the dying of the light. Experienced house builder Morrison (James Cromwell) determines that the best way to manage the illness of his wife Irene (Geneviève Bujold) is to build a safer and more practical one-story home on their rural New Brunswick spread. But neither common sense nor cooler heads prevail when the eighty-seven-year-old Morrison grudgingly approaches the local planning commission.
To Morrison, every requirement—from submitting plans to submitting to an inflexible National Building Code—is a pointless delay to an urgent project. To the inspector Rick Daigle (Jonathan Potts), Morrison's ultimate refusal to stop work is criminal. That the planning commission refuses to make a place for Morrison, whose materials and methods prove purer and stronger than the accepted standard, becomes a metaphor for wasteful disregard of the experience and personality of our elders.
Still Mine could be mistaken and misused as an anti-regulatory screed. Certainly, it is a critique of bureaucracy overcoming rationality. But more importantly, it's a character study of a man holding the line for what's still his: his life with Irene and his sense of self, based on his love for her and his identity as a man who makes things happen.
That straightforward theme, handled with care and patience by McGowan, proves mightily compelling, and deftly sidesteps sentimentality and cliche. Above all, Still Mine is a unique showcase for one-time Oscar nominee Cromwell (according to the film's publicity, it's the lanky character actor's first starring role in a feature film—go figure). Often without dialogue, Cromwell keenly conveys Craig's every irritation, doubt, and heartache. His only failing is an appearance and demeanor that lacks the edge of a late-octogenarian (Cromwell's well-preserved in his early seventies).
He's ably supported by a cast also including Campbell Scott (as Craig's lawyer), Barbara Gordon as an attentive friend, and Rick Roberts and Julie Stewart as some of Craig's many lovingly concerned children. It's to their credit and McGowan's that the characters never lapse into simplistic TV-movie archetypes: like its hero, Still Mine has its integrity.