Few indie directors today navigate private spaces and fraught environments as effectively as Eliza Hittman, whose first two features “It Felt Like Love” and “Beach Rats” heralded a singular chronicler of young people in the thick of complicated desire.
With “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which premiered at Sundance and received an early VOD release on Friday after its theatrical release was truncated by the coronavirus, Hittman looks at one of the consequences of desire, as specifically experienced by the half that can get pregnant. In relaying a pair of teenage cousins’ tense overnight journey across the state line, Hittman wades into one of the more charged subjects of our time — abortion access — with the kind of sensitivity, focus and detail that will ensure its place as a dramatic standard for how to put a human face on a controversial topic.
Despite a tone that avoids explicit politics, there’s absolutely no question where Hittman’s sympathies lie as she unfolds her near-procedural story of the events surrounding a momentous decision made decisively. And yet it’s in the obstacle-laden path of her central character (who can know, who will help, how she’ll get it, what it takes) that the film gathers in force to become a quietly urgent portrait of womanhood as a still-and-ever social-legal minefield of expectations, strictures and imperiled agency.
The title itself — referencing the choices offered high schooler Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) on a medical form about her sexual history — speaks both to the aura of assessment and limitation women can be made to feel even in what should be the safest of spaces and to the temporality inherent in any story whose subject reflects on the plight of women to control their own destiny.
Arriving the year after we lost Agnès Varda, Hittman’s film feels like an essential continuation of that masterful French filmmaker’s legacy of stories about women making their way through life’s gauntlets. And considering the fact that Hittman’s returning “Beach Rats” cinematographer Hélène Louvart once worked with Varda (on “The Beaches of Agnès”), that connection across the span of female-made art feels even more apt.
When we first see 17-year-old Autumn, she’s in a talent show ironically singing a folk rendition of the ’60s girl-group lament “He’s Got The Power.” The subtext is apparent later at a pizza parlor, sitting with her clueless mom (Sharon Van Etten, “The OA”) and brittle stepfather (Ryan Eggold, “New Amsterdam”) — they see Autumn as just a scowling pill — when she bolts from the table and throws water in the face of a taunting teenage boy.
The next day, after looking at her stomach in the mirror, she ventures to a local “women’s clinic” in her rural Pennsylvania town only to find drugstore pregnancy kits, scant medical advice, and a suspiciously positive grandma vibe that emphasizes motherhood or adoption. When the reality of Autumn’s tight-lipped distress becomes apparent to best bud, cousin and co-worker Skylar (Talia Ryder) at their cashier’s job, Skylar takes charge, arranging a secret one-day bus trip to a Brooklyn Planned Parenthood, accompanying her for support.
In New York, they encounter further roadblocks and detours, none of which suggest, thankfully, any unnecessary plot engineering on Hittman’s part. Between the pair’s struggles with funds, new knowledge, irritation and navigating an unfamiliar city — is the handsome young stranger (Théodore Pellerin, “On Becoming a God in Central Florida”) who chats the girls up a nuisance or a possible ally? — the vibe is authentically taut and naturalistic about the obstacles facing women in Autumn’s situation.
It’s also telling that we don’t even learn Autumn’s and Skylar’s names until well into the movie; Hittman’s sense of exposition has always been loose and oblique, but it’s in the service of revealing her characters through an internal weather system that emerges in behavior, words, and her actors’ expressions. The detail of a look or gesture of individuality — the excellent Ryder’s watchful eyes and steadfast actions, for example, playing a best friend — point us to who she is more than keeping track of her name. It’s almost a form of authorial protectiveness, a way for Hittman to point us to what matters: the humanity in her characters.
And Flanigan’s face as an emotional bellwether is a powerful one, never more so than in the pivotal scene when she answers a compassionate clinic worker’s difficult queries about her past, and her sense of security. As the camera stays on Autumn, the formality of real help in a safe environment starts to allow a small measure of painfully reflective release in her typically stoic features. It’s a quietly devastating scene, the poignant center of Flanigan’s magnetic turn, but also one that illuminates the other key theme to Hittman’s movie: the solidarity, whether prompted by a concerned woman’s questions or a best friend’s unspoken companionship, that makes the hardest of journeys doable.
It finds its most poetic expression in twin shots, scenes apart, of Autumn and Skylar holding hands, each scenario spurred by one reaching for the other as if to say “You’re not alone.” That connection is also one of the wonders of the movies, and why “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and its portrait of a timeless female fortitude stands as an especially potent and timely act of artistic storytelling empathy.