As much as I liked Eliza Hittman’s last film, Beach Rats, I wrote at the time that despite having style to burn, I wasn’t convinced she had anything new to say. It came across as a Larry Clark/Terrence Malick/Andrea Arnold summit meeting. With her new film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, she has truly found her voice and a deceptively simple filmmaking style to produce a quietly profound, devastating film.
Newcomer Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn, a 17-year-old girl who performs at the high school talent show when we first meet her. With her family in the audience, she suffers the humiliation of a male classmate coughing up the word “slut” and finds the strength to keep going. It’s a beautiful yet painful way to paint a quick picture of this character. Soon thereafter, she discovers she’s pregnant. After a failed attempt to self-terminate and encountering many barriers at a local clinic, she runs from her small town Pennsylvania town to Manhattan in search of an abortion. She brings her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) along for emotional support on what they think will be quick daylong trip. Of course, this task proves much more arduous than they had initially thought, leaving the pair stranded in the city with little money and no place to stay.
Hittman has written a bare bones story but has delivered complex emotions in every single scene. Eschewing melodrama and histrionics, Hittman opts for subtlety in order to expose the micro-agressions aimed at women in our society. Back at home, the girls work together at a market in which their manager forces himself on them in the most disturbing way. I had to rewatch the scene a few times to catch what he was doing, and in that moment, Hittman’s theme of young girls navigating a patriarchal society without necessarily having the best tools to do so, slowly emerged. Autumn faces a hard-drinking stepfather (Ryan Eggold of New Amsterdam) who clearly has a dark past with her, but Hittman never feels the need to spell things out. We experience the male gaze from Autumn and Skylar’s perspectives and it says it all without ever resorting to over-writing or speechifying.
Furthermore, Autumn, a sullen personality on a good day, delivers her entire history to us without every spelling it out. You see it in the way she never asks people how they are after they ask it of her. She has clearly been through some harsh experiences, but she has her walls up to protect herself. One spectacular scene, however, which explains the movie’s title, finds her answering personal questions from a social worker. Each one triggers deep-seated emotions, causing her to barely answer the most terrifying of them. Her crumbling face tells the whole, terrible story. It’s one of the least fussy powerhouse scenes I’ve witnessed in a long time. Flanigan and Ryder also make fantastic debuts with these fine, subtle, lived-in performances.
Using a largely female crew, Hittman gets phenomenal work from her cinematographer, Hélène Louvart who has the gift of a documentarian’s eye combined with the ability to bring us one beautifully framed, naturally lit image after another. Autumn and Skylar often appear together in many shots which skillfully show their alternately close or distant moments. I particularly loved a scene in which Skylar kisses a young man (Théodore Pellerin) they befriend behind a pole as Autumn reaches out her hand to get Skylar’s attention. It’s difficult to balance a cinéma vérité, almost real time style with one that’s thought out and composed, but Hittman and Louvart pull it off seamlessly.
I loved that Hittman chose not to fill the film with the usual New York City terrors. It’s enough to watch our two leads lug a suitcase around in the rain, to ride the subways all night, and worry about who approaches them. We see a man pleasuring himself in front of them on the subway, yet the way these young women respond to their surroundings packs more punch. A lovely scene in which Skylar applies makeup to a tired, hungry Autumn perfectly found the tenderness and survival instincts this pair possesses. Moreover, they behave like real teenagers. Without eye rolls or snappy dialogue, this pair use a less is more approach to reveal the quiet hellscape of their lives. This terse, blank style works so much better than screaming to the back rows. Hittman doesn’t have a loud message for her audience when a muffled scream will suffice. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is small on incident and showy scenes, yet it still manages to roar.
Glenn Gaylord’s 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE: Never Rarely Sometimes Always gets a 0 out of 50. While clearly a film with a feminist point of view, it operates solely within a cis hetero-centric world.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Never Rarely Sometimes Always was released theatrically on March 13, but due to the pandemic, it has been made available on DVD and on the usual VOD streaming platforms. Although it carries a steep rental price, it’s important to give films such as these a chance in this extremely difficult current market.