CANADIAN writer-director Kathleen Hepburn expands her award-winning short film for an uncompromising drama that stands on the shoulders of an amazing, deeply affecting central performance by our very own Shirley Henderson.

She plays Judy, a loving mother who is struggling with the crippling advanced symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Her affliction sees her being ruled by severe shaking and the need for medication, impinging on her ability to live a normal life as a wife to husband Eddie (Nicholas Campbell) and a mother to her rebellious 19-year-old son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin) who helps out however he can while trying to hide his own issues from his parents.

Following a devastating family tragedy that changes their lives forever, Judy feels the grip of her illness grow tighter and tighter as the days go on. Meanwhile, her son is dealing with problems of his own – confusion over his sexuality and holding down a difficult job on an oil field away from the family home.

It’s a small film lacking in the big speech showiness of how a glossy Hollywood drama might handle this type of difficult subject matter. Its raw power lies in the small moments that layer on top of one another in an uncommonly unflinching directorial style that marks Hepburn out as a filmmaker of great potential.

Whether it’s Judy struggling to clean the oven in the middle of the night, suffering the indignity of her son having to help her out of a freezing cold bath or the pain of simply rising out of bed in the morning, the director paints a stark picture of a struggling life amid a wintery landscape. Superbly captured by Norm Li’s beautiful cinematography, it functions as both a convincingly realised backdrop and a pained reflection of what this everyday family is going through.

It’s also an unrelentingly grim and atmospherically overpowering film and sometimes to a fault.

The pace sometimes leans over into the sluggish, particularly when it focuses on the son’s unnecessarily protracted storyline; a lengthy sequence in which he romantically pursues a local supermarket worker just feels unneeded.

That sort of thing threatens to diminish the effect of the mother’s far more involving story, largely thanks to Henderson’s terrific performance which judiciously keeps things away from cheaply exploitative caricature and firmly in the realm of the heartbreakingly believable. More tightening up in the editing room would have helped this to have a more pointed focus but nevertheless it has a powerful, haunting heart beating at its core.

Released on April 20