Writer-director Eliza Hittman's third feature is a tense and timely drama about US abortion rights - and her best film yet
A young girl stands on a stage, singing, playing guitar. Her performance isn't bad, exactly, but maybe it isn't quite right for this kind of school talent show. The audience don't seem to get it. And then another student, male, makes a loud comment under his breath, embarrassing her, and everyone else. The girl takes a moment. Then she continues, despite the hiccup. For her, the thing's ruined. But the point is that she finds the courage to go on.
The earlier films of the talented writer-director Eliza Hittman grappled with sexual awakening amongst the beachy backdrop of her native Brooklyn, her young protagonists alone and adrift, Hittman's camera marvelling over young, tanned bodies with a youthful longing and perpetual restlessness.
Whilst those features could be called slight, there is a sense here of a filmmaker striking the perfect balance between the alienated teen character studies of her past and a film with some genuine narrative heft. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the first Hittman film to have a distinct plot – or at the very least something you could pitch in an elevator – as pregnant seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), board a bus for New York City where they hope that Autumn, unable to get an abortion without parental consent in her home state of Pennsylvania, will undertake the procedure in a single day.
Hittman's style has always relied on the absence of information: things are inferred, relationships suggested. We are never quite sure. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is all the stronger for it, as the narrative is stripped of unnecessary distractions and we rely on the actors' faces – or their actions – to fill in the gaps. Quickly Autumn's plan falls apart and the film embraces Hittman's trademark restlessness, a sense of having to kill time, as the trip stretches out far long than expected, and one day becomes as long as three.
Far from dull, this waiting period – drifting in an out of train stations and video game arcades and delis – is made gripping because we know the stakes, of how terrible the situation is for these characters. The New York of this film is not the one we are so used to. It’s the kind of film where Times Square feels tacky, the way a native New Yorker might see it, overpriced and excessive, the city cast in an endless grey. With them always, a large suitcase, its contents vague. But its presence frustrates us as much as it frustrates them – baggage literal and metaphorical.
And whilst men are not the focus here (we do not know who the father is), they lurk in the peripherals, Hittman emphasising how leering glances and uninvited touches can make the world seem like such a frightening place for a young woman. It's the sort of film that provokes an instinctive shudder whenever a man appears; and when Sidney and Skylar are forced to hang with Jasper (a perfectly cast Théodore Pellerin) in order to secure some cash, hitting bowling alleys and karaoke bars, we squirm. He's almost a nice guy, and Hittman creates an unbearable tension from their union: intentions are vague, boundaries are blurred, and it's not entirely clear who is taking advantage of who.
This could have clearly played as an “issues movie,” but Hittman’s stripped back, vérité-like approach works far better to make a point: she simply delivers a slice of life and lets us make up our own minds about whether the systems in place for young women are suitable. The film’s centre piece is a meeting with a counsellor in which Autumn is asked about keeping the baby, and must answer a series of questions (the options she must choose from give the film its wordy title). Though the counsellor is calm and respectful, the scene unfolds with the anxiety one would associate with an interrogation, camera lingering on Autumn's face as Flanigan goes through a full range of emotions, fighting back tears, a tour- de-force of actorly control that enriches an otherwise quiet performance.
Yet the key to the movie is the relationship between Autumn and Skylar. It plays out almost wordlessly, both girls feeling the weight of their mission but rarely acknowledging the situation. Is it that they’re close enough that they don't need to discuss it, or is Skylar simply fulfilling a sense of family obligation? Hittman, as always, is reluctant to give us more than we need. We long for them to embrace – for Autumn to say thanks. It never comes. But there is a deeply affecting instance where Autumn extends a pinky finger to her cousin at a moment of crisis, the only time she seems to acknowledge Skylar’s above-and-beyond efforts. This is a film you feel deep in your bones.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now streaming on VOD platforms.Where to watch online