When it comes to relatable catharsis, drama can be all too easy. Heroes and heroism can be depicted in broad, quickly digestible strokes, just as strength can be telegraphed and spelled out so as to be as relatable and understandable as possible. Some storytellers work best in this fashion, seeking to portray events in a larger than life manner. Yet there are also those artists whose work is so incisive, those who manage to capture real life (or rather, moments that at least simulate real life) to such a degree that their fiction becomes nearly indistinguishable from fact. Writer-director Eliza Hittman is one of these artists. Her ability to portray authentic events and characters on screen is remarkable, and, as a result, her work is more resonant than any grandiose or melodramatic take on similar material.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Hittman’s new film, is an abortion drama that is so grounded in reality, so meticulous in its details, that it becomes one of the most moving and insightful movies made on the subject. In the tradition of the Italian Neorealism films of the 1940s/1950s and the more recent work of filmmakers such as the Dardennes brothers, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a story told in an unobtrusive and near-real time manner. Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), suffering from a mysterious sickness as well as a sneaking suspicion, goes to her local women’s clinic and discovers that she is 10 weeks pregnant. Her lower-middle-class family likely wouldn’t agree to her having an abortion, let alone be able to help her pay for it, so she and her best friend (who also happens to be her cousin), Skylar (Talia Ryder), swipe some money from their supermarket cashier job and head by bus to New York City, visiting a Planned Parenthood there. When it becomes clear that Autumn’s pregnancy will require multiple days to abort, the two find themselves stuck in the city overnight with dwindling funds and the ever present threat of danger looming over them.
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In depicting that world of danger, Hittman makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always into an unequivocally subjective film, shot in a manner that feels grounded and objective. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart (who also shot Hittman’s previous film, 2017’s Beach Rats) beautifully keeps alive the tension of the movie while never fully giving over to more showy techniques such as “shaky cam,” instead allowing all of the nuances of the actor’s faces to be seen. Similarly, editor Scott Cummings and composer Julia Holter support this effort rather than get in the way, and Cummings in particular allows many shots to hold and continue, their calmness only serving to increase the tension. The real source of that tension comes from Hittman’s well-observed script, creating a world that is quietly yet insidiously oppressive toward young women. Every facet of the small Philadelphia town the girls are from (the type of town that, when asked its name, Autumn replies “you haven’t heard of it”) is geared toward keeping women in line within an antiquated system of gender roles, from Autumn’s father casually calling the family dog a “slut” to the girls’ supermarket manager treating his employees in a predatory manner, and also to the lady at the women’s clinic forcing Autumn to watch a pro-life propaganda video that’s at least 30 years old. The talent show at the beginning of Never Rarely Sometimes Always that Autumn subverts in order to showcase her own individual and unique musical gifts is one that her high school clearly demanded be 50s themed, further enforcing an old and outdated model of American values. Even the shining, supposedly enlightened haven of New York City turns out to be filled with predators of a different sort, a place where men feel empowered enough to chase after people they’ve just met on the bus, or openly masturbate on a subway train.
The obstacles Autumn and Skylar face, both implicitly and explicitly, make their determination and inner strength all the more striking. Both Flanigan and Ryder give remarkably nuanced performances, in a manner that fits with Hittman’s aesthetic while also giving a sense of numbness, with the characters able to go through life by relentlessly moving forward, almost like a survival technique. When the emotion bubbles to the surface and breaks through, the performances never become overt, always remaining truthful. Everything in Never Rarely Sometimes Always — those performances, the medical procedures (ranging from the actual prep to things like planning on how to pay for it), the look of the film — is grounded in such a way as to best convey just how hard it is to be a young woman in America, let alone deal with a personal problem such as Autumn’s. Hittman’s film is subjective, yet has so much room within it with which to bring a myriad of thoughts and emotions to. In that way, it’s like its titular psychological examination, a series of words and images that leave room for interpretation yet are also extremely pointed. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, in its quietly lovely way, sees its pair of strong young women take control of their lives in a world of oppressive hardship, and while their struggle is never melodramatic or grandiose, its effect is lasting, deeply felt and ultimately heroic.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.