The beauty of coming to a film festival like Sundance is you’re exposed to movies from a cross section of filmmakers, on topics you probably wouldn’t seek out otherwise. Friday night saw the premiere of Eliza Hittman‘s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a movie I didn’t know much about going in. It’s a staggering piece of filmmaking and acting, about a topic that’s uncomfortable to many. It’s one of the most affecting and heartrending movies I’ve seen in quite a while, and all of that with minimal dialogue, resting on next-level performances from two young actors.
Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn, a 17-year-old high school student in blue collar Pennsylvania. She comes from a home of casual substance abuse and works at a grocery store. Autumn begins to suspect, and fear, that she may be pregnant and goes to a clinic for a test. Sure enough, she is. She then has to make a supremely hard decision, and one she can’t make in her home state, lest her parents find out. Her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) decides the two of them should take a road trip to New York where Autumn can get an abortion without anyone finding out. But two underage girls in the big city with very little money is a supremely dangerous situation and as happens, complications arise.
The narrative of the movie is very straightforward, but the journey is everything. So much of the film rests on the face and inner life of Autumn. She doesn’t talk much, but we know so much about her and what she’s feeling and thinking buried under the surface. Flanigan and Ryder have an amazing on screen bond that feels incredibly truthful. Their relationship, their closeness is innate; we don’t need pages of dialogue to get who these girls are and what their plight is. It’s natural and undeniable.
Hittman has a complete grasp of the story she’s telling. It’s not about moralizing or proselytizing but about exploring a very real predicament that hundreds and thousands of young women in America have to deal with. The movie opens with Autumn performing a song in a school talent show, with her family watching; in the middle of it, a teenage boy shouts “slut” at her. This is the world she comes from. Boys can have sex all they want and it’s cool; if girls do it, they’re castigated. And good luck trying to be pregnant on top of that.
The film’s standout scene is Autumn’s pre-procedure interview at Planned Parenthood. The caseworker asks a series of questions to obtain Autumn’s sexual history. Almost the entire scene is a single shot of Autumn, listening to questions and asked to answer “Never, rarely, sometimes, or always.” With each subsequent question, though no specifics are ever given, we get a full picture of Autumn’s entire life. The most telling of all are the unanswered questions, met with tears and darting eyes. It’s a harrowing but completely moving scene.
Ultimately Never Rarely Sometimes Always is about two women with mountains of societal and community pressures on them, sticking together through the worst of it. So much of their mutual love and affection goes unsaid, but we know they’re in it together. Through every cross-state bus ride or nights in port authority.
This is a triumph of filmmaking. Minimal in approach, but maximum in impact.
Featured Image: Focus Features