In a world and time where the hot-button topic of abortion has been a divisive point of political pull; In a place where the majority of those in power will never have to grapple with the decision their entire lives, how do we shift our perspective to find the empathy towards those that are directly affected by the when, how, and who that can undergo the procedure? Eliza Hittman’s new film might be a starting place. She’s a filmmaker who’s films are often hemmed in by the sense that their sullen young characters are stuck on a one-way subway ride to lost innocence. Both of her previous works (It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats) brought sensitive observations but also a little sense of predictability in their downward trajectories, both making sexual awakenings invariably a rude awakening.
With her third feature, her possible starting point to the previously posed question, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, that’s not entirely the case. But make no mistake, this too is another unsparing drama about the hardships that can come with coming of age — sex brings, as it does in all of Hittman’s movies, a little more than heartache, disappointment, and trouble. And the trouble this time is indeed serious: Quiet and reserved seventeen-year-old Autumn (incredible newcomer Sidney Flanigan) is pregnant in rural Pennsylvania, where her options are exceedingly limited. That’s a greater obstacle than Hittman has ever placed before one of her withdrawn, confused young protagonists. The paradox of the film is that in doing so, she somehow liberates the character from the crushing inevitability that’s defined her work until now.
Maybe it’s the agency she affords Autumn, taking charge of her predicament rather than stumbling into telegraphed misfortune. Sure, she’s not ready to be a mother and she’s afraid to tell either her parents (including her distant, troubled step-father) or the abusive jerk who knocked her up, Sidney enlists the help of her cousin, fellow teenage grocery store cashier Skylar (Talia Ryder), and the two leave for New York city to secure her an abortion, with barely enough in their pockets to cover the bus tickets, let alone the operation. This isn’t the first time Hittman has explored the outer edges of New York City, but here she’s able to key in on just Manhattan and doesn’t display it with idyllic grandeur like many other films have. From the flickering lights of treacherous tunnels to the construction-layered streets to the unsettling desolation of Port Authority at night as their trip gets over-extended, the hardships and unease for two strangers attempting to navigate the bustling city are rendered in all its exasperated stress. This strain also carries over to the minimal dialogue shared between Autumn and Skylar. And with that minimal element, cinematographer Hélène Louvart brings a level of dexterity and tactility to each gaze, grimy subway, and sidewalk. With stunning 16mm and a shallow depth of field, we’re intimately connected to each gesture on display and locked into Autumn’s perspective.
But, Never Rarely Sometimes Always also shows an urgency, dramatic and political and new in Hittman’s arsenal, and to the road-trip structure. Never Rarely Sometimes Always has already been compared to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the gripping Romanian thriller that seemed to introduce the whole world to a new national cinema, and which similarly revolved around two young women jumping through hoops and navigating legal barriers to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. That film, though, was set in the ’80s, in a country under authoritarian rule, which makes the parallels between its cultural trials and the ones this film depicts pretty disheartening. The point wouldn’t be lost on Hittman, who opens her movie with a ’50s-themed high-school talent show — a quick and shrewd way to visually imply how little progress the country has made in some areas.
All of which makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always vital and timely, especially at a moment when the legality of abortion is coming under fresh judicial attack, and lawmakers all over the country are trying to curtail a woman’s right to choose, increasingly with the proposed threat of severe punishment. Yet Hittman isn’t here to preach or be a polemicist in general. She expresses her empathy and political conscience through a refined version of what’s become her signature style, zeroing in on details of place and behavior, both magnified by the reliably involving scenario of two kids from the sticks navigating an environment they have no familiarity with. And moments of startling, unaffected tenderness peak through the grimness of the circumstances — the film’s emotionally overwhelmingly clinic questionnaire scene from which Hittman pulls her title is heartbreaking and as well announces Sidney Flanigan (in her first acting role) as a genuine star. Though the film’s quieter moments are as well quite affecting, like the one where Skylar makes peace with her cousin after a spat by wordlessly applying eye shadow.
While Never Rarely Sometimes Always is Hittman’s most straight-forward film, it’s also her most powerful, culminating in a sensitive, stirring experience free from heavy-handed sensationalism. As the moral, ethical, and legal debate of abortion continues amongst higher powers, Hittman has provided an essential, detailed, specific look at just one person’s struggle to have control of their own self. By doing so with such a delicate, considered perspective, she’s giving a voice to millions of women going through the same experience. And I think it’s time to listen. Continuing perceptive displays of modern American youth, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always sees the filmmaker at her best; delivering a deeply empathetic and restrained drama stitched in a thick social fabric.