Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s teenage abortion drama is a quietly devastating gem that deserves to be heard across the world for its honest, realistic and carefully detailed story.
Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s last feature to premiere at Sundance was 2017’s beautifully written and shot Beach Rats about a tough, masculine teenager conflicted with self-discovery and exploring his sexuality while dodging the toxic masculinity of his buddies. Veering away from the sunny environment for a much darker intimacy, Hittman returns tot he adolescent female focus of her insightful first feature, It Felt Like Love, although in her third full-length feature, she writes and brings to life a young woman who struggles to take control of her body after finding herself pregnant. The film continues to widen the admiration for Hittman’s signature blend of unadorned realism with a very moody, melancholy dreaminess while also providing an impressive showcase for talented young screen discoveries Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder.
The film starts by introducing us to the protagonist, Autumn (Flanigan) who is something of an outsider in her rural Pennsylvania community. The opening scene is a high school talent show, where instead of having the protagonist deliver a glittery and showy performance, Autumn performs a decelerated and emo-like take on The Exciters’ hit “He’s Got the Power” with an acoustic guitar and her sad eyes heavy with silver glitter. She falters in a brief moment when a male student in the audience yells “Slut!” during her song. Afterwards, her mother (Sharon Van Etten) and her cousin Skylar (Ryder) offer her support while her stepfather (Ryan Eggold) could care less. Hittman’s decision to use The Exciters’ hit single is a powerful method in planting the idea of girls drawn into a compromising situation and being judged harshly for it, while it echoes later in her responses to the questions of an abortion clinic counselor.
Hittman’s script leaves out all unnecessary detail. We never know who the father is and all the details of how she got pregnant are irrelevant. This is Autumn’s story and that is all we are focusing on. At the local clinic, she is shown an anti-abortion video to convince her of not carrying out the abortion. It’s Skylar who takes the initiative and decides to help her cousin make it to New York where legally Autumn can have the abortion safely. The shift in location – from the shabby storefronts of where the cousins work and the rural farms of the Pennsylvania countryside to the crowds and confusion of Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal – changes up the textures of cinematographer Helene Louvart’s 16mm camerawork. It also magnifies the vulnerability between the two young women who arrive in NYC with nothing but the address of a Brooklynn reproductive clinic and barely any money to make it in the city more than one day.
As seen in earlier works, Hittman is an exemplary director of young directors, getting them to reveal all their vulnerabilities, fears, courage and resilience in a humane and minuscule manner and coax unimpeachable natural work from them. Flanigan is a real find and Ryder is equally compelling and their chemistry holds the movie so beautifully with a gentle emotional pull in every scene that never crescendoes into an over-the-top climax. The moments of understated tenderness between the cousins is always endearing and there notes of lingering poignancy. The film’s most intense scene (and probably one of the most memorable moments in film this year) is Autumn’s interview with the clinic counselor; Louvart’s camera locks in on Flanigan as Autumn tries to answer the questions that the caring medical professional is asking, with the patient’s eyes revealing shame, regret and humiliation… all in answering with just four simple words: Never. Rarely. Sometimes. Always.
Hittman’s storytelling is seductively loose, impressionistic and certain scenes she includes give shape to the girls’ unsettling odyssey all while never going over the top. There’s never a showy moment in either of the lead performances and yet we understand and come to really know the two young women intimately during a journey more often traveled in silence than conversation. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an “issue drama” and in the most unconventional way. It is raw, haunting and painfully real. And that is what cinema should be. It is represented as a moving snapshot of female friendship, solidarity and bravery in the most unexpected way. Whether you have been in a similar situation to Autumn or not, you will feel for her and understand her. You will find a moment in her story (or Skylar’s even) that will haunt you of how real it is playing in realtime in front of you. This movie speaks volume and in the quietest and best of ways.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition Category and played at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival in competition, winning the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. At press time, the film was released in limited theatrical run on March 13, 2020.
Director: Eliza Hittman.
Screenwriter: Eliza Hittman
Music by: Julia Holter.
Cinematography: Helene Louvart.
Production: BBC Films, Pastel, Tango Entertainment, Mutressa Movies, Cinereach.
With: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Theodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten.