With the arrival of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, we explore the filmmaker's uniquely woozy and melancholy teen portraits
If Eliza Hittman movies were a feeling, they’d be restlessness. The Brooklyn-born filmmaker excels in a particular kind of youthful portrait – of young people in search of purpose, trying to discover where they belong, but forced to wander aimlessly in search of meaning. But where do you go when you're young and without options? As though to emphasise this, Hittman's films tend to eschew strong narrative hooks, choosing instead to take a vérité-like approach.
Is there a better personification of restlessness than the long, hot summer at home, where nothingness is a way of life and the weeks stretch on and on? In her debut feature, It Felt Like Love, fifteen-year-old Lila is the ultimate third wheel to best friend Chiara and boyfriend Sammy. They're sexually active, and so of course Lila, too, feels a need to match her friend's efforts. Over 82 minutes, Hittman chronicles Lila's ill-fated attempts to pursue an older guy, her woozy camera obsessed with bodies the way a teenager on the cusp of puberty might be.
But mostly Lila drifts, goes to parties, and hangs out at the beach – killing time because doing something is better than nothing. We learn that her mother has died, leaving her alone with her dad, a man who seems to be struggling with his own issues and appears to exist in a similar kind of limbo. Lila's attempts to find herself eventually lead to a dangerous place, though Hittman is keen to avoid the details. The implication is enough. There is a perpetual directionless that hangs over the film; frustrating for Lila, but also a little frustrating for us, too.
Hittman’s follow up, Beach Rats, also finds its subject in yet another teenager from Brooklyn whose existence is defined by his endless drifting. Seventeen-year-old Frankie's problems stem from his struggles to come out as gay within an overtly masculine world. At night, he goes online and chats to other men, who he occasionally meets to sleep with. With his straight friends, he walks the boardwalk at Coney Island, acting tough, taking drugs. Soon, for show, he starts dating a beautiful girl named Simone, but constantly rejects her advances in the bedroom.
This is a somewhat deeper portrait than the one in Hittman's debut, as we're given more insight into Frankie's home life. Like Lila, he's left with one parent – though Frankie, confused and adrift, doesn't seem to process his father's death when it happens. As in her debut, the beach becomes the mainstay for killing time. Frankie takes Simone out, but he's just playing a part. Later, the uncomfortableness within Frankie spirals into violent incident. The film ends with Frankie still in limbo, the restlessness unabated.
Hittman’s third and latest film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, feels like her most accomplished work to date. If this is the first Eliza Hittman film with a discernible plot, it is still in line with her previous works in that it’s a portrait of a troubled teen, though this time the sense of plotlessness is replaced with a direct mission: 17-year-old Autumn, pregnant and unable to get an abortion without parental consent in her home state, travels to New York City with her cousin, Skylar, to secure the procedure. What should have taken a day soon extends into a three-day-long nightmare, as Autumn and her cousin are forced to hang in purgatory, waiting for the appointment, with nowhere to sleep and little money to their name.
Even in Hittman’s most plot-driven film does she find room for her trademark restlessness. Yet here the stakes are arguably higher, as two young girls are forced to go rough in an unforgiving city. A large section of the movie sees Autumn and Skylar lingering in train stations and in delis. Later, desperate for money, they're forced to hang with a young man they met on the bus ride in. The result is an awkward evening spent in fast food joints, bowling alleys, and karaoke bars – and in Times Square, of places, depicted here without the usual romance but as a tacky tourist mecca.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always' sudden turn into aimlessness isn't hiding a lack of narrative ambition, but is in service of a larger point. Here is a filmmaker who uses restlessness to paint her themes. In It Felt Like Love, we felt restlessness as an extension of Lila's sexual awakenings. Beach Rats gave us restlessness as a metaphor for Frankie's inability to be himself. Here, time spent doing nothing reaffirms that the girls' situation is the result of a broken system; something that should be simple is made to drag on painfully, endlessly.
At what point does aimlessness within a narrative become boring for an audience, though? Hittman’s uniquely drawn filmography shows a filmmaker gradually becoming more and more skilled in finding the answer. Her early works exemplified themes of youthful longing, but could be called slight, whilst her latest finds a place for the same themes within the framework of a more conventional narrative without sacrificing the melancholy restlessness that made those works distinct.
Few modern directors are so consistently nailing the sense of anguish that can derive from having nothing to do. In other words: nobody is killing time quite like Eliza Hittman.
Read our full review of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, now available on VOD platforms to rent and stream.