So far, at least; it’s only April. But the latest from director Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats”) is a bracingly honest snapshot of female fortitude, cast against the backdrop of a country where women’s choices (and their stories) are often stripped away.
The film is about an abortion. No matter what side of the aisle you’re shouting from, this knowledge might make you uncomfortable; you might not want to watch it. I urge you to do so, anyways. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” isn’t interested in your politics. Hittman’s direction is far too restrained — her writing far too mature — to fall back on polemics or strawmen. That’s not to say the film was made without an agenda; Hittman, inspired by the Women’s March at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, isn’t pretending otherwise. But ultimately, this is a story about people. About circumstance. About life.
Our protagonist is Autumn (first-time actor Sidney Flanigan, whom Hittman discovered on Facebook). We’re introduced to her at an awkward high school talent show; she’s singing “He’s Got the Power” until one of her male peers ridicules her from the audience. She holds back her tears and keeps singing.
Her mother (musician Sharon Von Etten, who performs over the closing credits) seems supportive, but her step-dad is commanding in his apathy. She works at the convenience store with her best friend and cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder). After they count the cash in their registers, they must slip their hands into the manager’s office so he can kiss them goodnight. This is the world that they drift through.
One day, Autumn goes to a women’s clinic. The test comes back with a little red plus sign: pregnant. We will never meet the father. Strapped for cash and unwilling to confide in her parents, she and Skylar steal some of the money from their registers and catch a bus from working class Pennsylvania to New York. You already know the reason why.
As both a writer and director, Hittman respects your intelligence. Her film never talks down to you, never leans into cliches, never stands on a soapbox and shrieks. Yet, hidden within its quietness is a kind of silent scream, like shouting at the subway as it rattles past. It’s reflective of Autumn herself: a girl who has walled herself off from the world but is dying to have her voice heard.
In what is hopefully the first of many starring roles, Sidney Flanigan is nothing short of a miracle; like Hittman’s script, she says so much with so little. Talia Ryder is equally excellent as her cousin. Together, they seem so natural that you sometimes forget they’ve been directed. But that’s just Hittman’s style; inspired by documentary filmmaking and cinéma vérité, her vision doesn’t feel like a movie so much as a moment, suspended in time.
From a technical standpoint, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is an independent film through and through. The gauzy cinematography by Hélène Louvart is just wonderful, capturing the city in a dreamlike way that speaks to both its promise and its danger. The score, composed by singer-songwriter Julia Holter, calls to mind the melancholy of her terrific record, “Loud City Song,” echoing throughout the film like a whisper just within earshot.
The title comes from a scene about halfway through the movie. Autumn is at a clinic in New York now, speaking with a Planned Parenthood counselor. To each of the woman’s questions, Autumn must respond either “never, rarely, sometimes or always.” Simple enough. But as the questions grow more and more prying — How often does your partner force you to have sex? How often does your partner make you fear for your safety? — Autumn finally breaks. Her tears speak to a lifetime of abuse, a culture of silence and a country without a clear future. 2020 will be hard-pressed to find a scene half as moving. 9/10
This review was originally published on April 7, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.