'Never Rarely Sometimes Always': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Bracingly honest, exquisitely observed.
3/13/2020

Writer-director Eliza Hittman follows 'Beach Rats' with a transfixing account of a small-town Pennsylvania teenager dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.

In her hypnotic 2017 feature Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman trained a tough yet lyrical gaze on the conflicted self-discovery of a teenager in summertime blue-collar Brooklyn, exploring his sexuality while dodging the toxic masculinity of his tribal buddies. Trading that sun-blasted environment for a much darker intimacy, the writer-director returns to the adolescent female focus of her insightful first feature, It Felt Like Love, though that film's hunger for sexual experience has made way here for an uneasy reckoning with its collateral damage, as a young woman struggles to take control of her body after finding herself pregnant.

Slated for a March release through Focus Features, Never Rarely Sometimes Always should continue to widen the admiration for Hittman's signature blend of unadorned realism with moody, melancholy dreaminess, while providing an impressive showcase for talented young screen discoveries Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder. At a time when reproductive rights are under threat in many states, the film also stands to earn attention for its candid and clear-eyed contemplation of abortion as a choice arrived at not with hand-wringing but with sobering pragmatism.

Swiftly establishing that Autumn (Flanigan) is something of an outsider in her rural Pennsylvania community, Hittman opens with what appears to be a high school talent show. Unlike the jolly 1950s-style dance group or the cheesy Elvis impersonator that precede her onstage, there's nothing frivolous about Autumn's act as she accompanies herself on acoustic guitar, singing a decelerated, emo-fied take on The Exciters' hit "He's Got the Power," her sad eyes heavy with silver glitter.

She falters only briefly as a male student in the audience yells "Slut!" during her song. But the same jerk's crude mockery of her from across the diner where she goes with her family after the show gets under her skin. And although Autumn's caring mother (Sharon Van Etten) and her cousin Skylar (Ryder) offer support, her stepfather (Ryan Eggold) refuses to say anything encouraging about her performance, making it clear he's had enough of her sullen withdrawal.

Right from the start, Hittman plants the idea of girls drawn into compromising situations and judged harshly for it while boys get bragging rights among their snickering peers. The lyrics of the song Autumn performs — "He makes me do things I don't want to do / He makes me say things I don't want to say / And even though I want to break away / I can't stop saying I adore him / Can't stop doing things for him" — are echoed later in her responses to the questions of an abortion clinic counselor, with the multiple-choice answers providing the movie's title.

Hittman's script pares away all unnecessary detail, so we first learn of Autumn's pregnancy in a simple shot of her slight belly bulge before she confirms it at a local women's clinic where she's shown a graphic anti-abortion video. The awful solitude of her predicament runs through the film like a sorrowful undertow, countered by the warmth of her closeness with Skylar, who's more like a sister than a cousin, even if they tend to talk around anything too sensitive. At no point does Autumn confide in her mother.

It's Skylar who takes the initiative at the supermarket where they work as cashiers for a pervy boss, when she lifts a wad of cash to cover their bus fare to New York.

That shift in location — from the shabby storefronts, dying industrial sites and wintry farmlands of Pennsylvania to the crowds and confusion of Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal — changes up the grainy textures of cinematographer Hélène Louvart's limber 16mm camerawork. It also magnifies the vulnerability of the two young women, who arrive in New York with nothing but the address of a Brooklyn reproductive clinic. When her pregnancy turns out to be further along than Autumn was told, the termination procedure becomes more complicated, requiring them to stay two nights with no money for hotels or meals.

As she revealed in her earlier films, Hittman is an exemplary director of young actors, coaxing unimpeachably natural work here from her leads, in which their courage, fears, resilience and gnawing uncertainties play out across their faces as they kill time riding subways, in video arcades or simply wandering around the bus terminal.

Flanigan is a real find, her background as a musician deftly incorporated into a stunningly nuanced screen debut, in the opening and then again in a later karaoke-bar scene in which she puts a haunted spin on Gerry and the Pacemakers' "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying." Ryder is equally compelling, and their lovely chemistry gives the movie a gentle emotional pull.

The moments of understated tenderness between them seldom involve much direct discussion of their situation. But there are notes of lingering poignancy, such as a fight that causes Skylar to stomp off, later reconciling with Autumn in a beautiful scene in which their innate understanding of one another outweighs any need for an apology.

Hittman's storytelling is seductively loose, impressionistic, but key episodes give shape to the girls' unsettling odyssey. One involves them reconnecting with a fellow passenger from the bus (Théodore Pellerin), who made no secret of his attraction to Skylar, trying to impress her with his knowledge of the cool New York music scene. (His tuneless karaoke rendition of Flock of Seagulls' "Wishing" almost makes his desire endearing.) Hittman refuses to judge either Skylar for using her sexuality to get some cash out of him or the horny stranger for taking advantage of the tight spot that the girls consistently play down. Flanigan's face speaks volumes as she watches her cousin making out with him.

The film's most intense scene is Autumn's interview with the clinic counselor; Louvart's camera locks in on Flanigan as Autumn tries to answer the questions of the caring medical professional, the patient's eyes revealing shame, regret and humiliation.

There's never a showy moment in either of the lead performances, and yet we come to know these two young women intimately during a journey more often traveled in silence than conversation. The teen-abortion factor tags Never Rarely Sometimes Always as an issue drama, and in the most unconventional way, it is — raw, haunting and painfully real. But it's perhaps better defined as a moving snapshot of female friendship, solidarity and bravery.

The effortless flow in an exchange near the end in which Skylar switches from asking taciturn Autumn about the medical procedure to appreciating the greasy delights of Chinese baked goods is far more emotionally affecting than the tearful outpouring that most directors would have placed there.

Production companies: Pastel Production, in association with Tango Entertainment, Mutressa Movies, Cinereach
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder,
Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
Director-screenwriter: Eliza Hittman
Producers: Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy
Executive producers: Rose Garnett, Tim Headington, Lia Buman, Elika Portnoy, Alix Orlovsky, Barry Jenkins, Mark Ceryak
Director of photography: Hélène Louvart
Production designer: Meredith Lippincott
Costume designer: Olga Mill
Music: Julia Holter
Editor: Scott Cummings
Casting: Geraldine Baron, Salome Oggenfuss
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

101 minutes