Sundance 2020: Never Rarely Sometimes Always, by David Bax
There is much that is astounding about Eliza Hittman’s searing Never Rarely Sometimes Always but nothing about it surprises me as much as the realization that its two leads, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, are both making their feature film debuts. Their dialogue is kept to such a minimum–and what words they do have are so often unrevealing in and of themselves–that the burden on them is extreme. But the minimalism in their laudable performances, just like the minimalism in Hittman’s aesthetic and formal approaches, pay off with tiny moments, gestures and looks suggesting whole waves of emotion.
Autumn (Flanigan) is a small town teenager with an uncaring father (Ryan Eggold) and an ineffectual mother (Sharon Van Etten; also, the score is by Julia Holter, so the movie’s indie rock cred is unassailable). When she learns that she’s pregnant and that a minor can’t get an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental approval, Autumn takes a bus East through the grimy, winter wetness to New York City along with her unquestioningly supportive cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder).
Hittman has reenlisted cinematographer Hélène Louvart from her last film, 2017’s Beach Rats, and once again they have produced a gorgeously lit, framed and textured work. The handheld camerawork mostly remains subtle in its pale, everyday beauty but there is also a judicious use of more deliberate movements–a tilt up to a window or a push in on a face–that give us indelible impressions of the characters’ psyches.
As we are never less than sympathetic to Autumn, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is clearly a pro-choice movie. But Hittman (who also wrote the screenplay) doesn’t patronizingly celebrate that Autumn has an option available to her a three and a half hour bus ride away; rather, she explores how little choice women, poor women, poor young women and especially poor young women who need an abortion have in life in general. Even before Autumn’s town doctor forces her to watch a Christian propaganda video that refers to fetuses as babies, we see consistent incidences of unwanted attention–or worse–being foisted on them from men. With so much out of their control, we understand why Autumn and Skylar don’t even bother to discuss it with each other.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is necessarily a grind, with obstacles both minor and major repeatedly presenting themselves in Autumn and Skylar’s path. The point here is that it is very, very hard to get an abortion. Even if it’s legal, there are practical difficulties (money, time off of work, follow-up care) but the emotional and psychological toll of jumping through these hoops is great as well. The scene from which Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes its name is a restrained but devastating masterpiece illustrating that, as it currently stands in our country, the procedure itself is not all that’s invasive about abortion.