It always amazes me when a first time writer/director scores an all out, diamond encrusted A-list cast that would make the top dog filmmakers in Hollywood jealous, but it often results in a scantly marketed film that no one really ends up seeing but just happens to have a huge star studded ensemble in a quiet, curious independent piece that few are aware of. Such is the case in Joshua Michael Stern’s NeverWas, a beautiful modern fairytale that slipped under the radar back in the mid 2000’s but is ripe for rediscovery. Aaron Eckhart plays a rookie psychiatrist who expresses interest in working at a troubled mental health facility in rural BC, Canada, an institution where his mentally ill father (Nick Nolte) lived at years before. He was once a great children’s author who wrote about a magical kingdom called NeverWas and built a considerable legacy around his books, before becoming sadly unstable and being committed. Eckhart’s character wishes to find out wheat happened years before and treat some of these people now attending the facility, while the somewhat skeptical director (a sly William Hurt) doesn’t have high hopes for the program overall. Things get interesting when delusional patient Gabriel (Ian McKellen) starts mentioning NeverWas in his group sessions and believes it to be real, and Eckhart to be somehow connected to the legacy. What is he on about, why does he express a desire to break out and return to a place he calls his ‘kingdom’, and what’s his connection to the long gone father? McKellen is wonderful in the role, fiercely passionate and charismatic while showing heartbreaking undertones of some past trauma he can’t articulate yet needs to work through with this fantastical delusions. Nolte gives a mini powerhouse performance in just flashbacks alone and is incredibly affecting, while the late great Brittany Murphy is cast refreshingly against type as a local naturalist who expresses interest in this unusual situation. The cast is so blinged out that even the smallest roles have been given to someone super recognizable and so we get to see people like Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Michael Moriarty, Bill Bellamy and Vera Farmiga show up and not necessarily have much to do character wise other than simply bless the production with their attendance. The lush Canadian setting provides a gorgeous atmosphere for this strange, quaint and very personal story to unfold, anchored by McKellen in a superb, emotionally rich portrayal that he sticks with and lands with a final beat to the arc that cuts right to the essential. The film also managed to score Philip Glass for its original score (Candyman, Tales From The Loop, The Hours) a man whose unmistakable compositions always provide an auditory heart and propellant momentum, his work adding a lot to the overall experience here. The very definition of a hidden gem and well worth seeking out for the unbelievable cast and unique, touching story.