Directed By Eliza Hittman
Starring – Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Ryan Eggold
The Plot – Inseparable best friends and cousins Autumn (Flanigan) and Skylar (Ryder) precariously navigate the vulnerability of female adolescence in rural Pennsylvania. When Autumn mysteriously falls pregnant, she’s confronted by conservative legislation without mercy for blue-collar women seeking an abortion. With Skylar’s unfailing support and bold resourcefulness, money to fund the procedure is secured and the duo board a bus bound for New York state to find the help Autumn needs.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing/mature thematic content, adult language, some sexual references and teen drinking
– Painting the picture. One of Hittman’s strongest executions as a commanding hand is her ability to fruitfully paint the dynamics between her settings that offers comprehension for why a protagonist’s personality is the way it is, and that measure plays prominently in her latest film. Documenting the diverse worlds between Pennsylvania and New York unabashedly, Eliza all but elaborates at the isolation and loneliness that plagues Autumn in a way that weighs like a burden not only to her introverted demeanor, but also to us the audience who absorb her emptiness like a sagging wet blanket. With all of its small town ideals and pre-conceived notions, the former state feels centuries behind the latter, and polarizes Autumn’s every move with constant scoffing, sexual abuse, and immature humiliation. The big apple is slightly different, in that it’s visually and audibly in musical capacity hinted at as being a place of hope, where anything is possible in a place that is liberally as flexible as it gets. This benefit allows her to open up slowly but surely as the film persists, and makes her friendship with Skyler all the more compelling because of the small fish in a big pond establishment that so much of this long distance journey centers on.
– Humble pie. In being one of those ‘Slice of life’ films that move us with a healthily entertaining balance of poignancy and social commentary, the film doesn’t abide by the basic rules of filmmaking that sometimes condemns the authenticity of the film’s natural elements. There’s no antagonist, no third act distancing between the two friends, no manipulative melodrama that bends and stretches the tonal consistency of the movie’s foreground, and no triumphant ending that stitches this journey of self-discovery seamlessly. Instead, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” has a surreal effortlessness to it that very much gives it the documentary feel, that can often give us access to the moments that we shouldn’t privy to. It’s an easily immersive story of adversity that tells us so much about one woman’s constant struggles, but so much more about females of today who are burdened with a society that still doesn’t respect their rights with their own bodies, and transforms this anything-but-conventionally riveting drama into an urgent call for compassion in a cruel and unforgiving world.
– Breakthrough besties. Another element to Hittman’s production that I’ve always appreciated is her decision to take these virtual unknowns in the acting community, and give them starring roles front-and-center at a narrative’s attention. This is beneficial to me, because it not only limits distraction in my investment towards feeling like these are real people with real problems, but also allows the actresses to win us over without an ounce of celebrity to their influence. It’s a masterful approach, as the duo of Flanigan and Ryder are among the most emotionally gifted leading ladies that I’ve seen this cinematic year, despite the film limiting their dialogue, and instead asking them to act on an approach that is entirely based on facial and bodily movements. Flanigan wears the weight of responsibility and vulnerability tirelessly, and cements it all with a near catatonic state of awareness that is the engine in this frail state of being that often overtakes her. Without question, the film’s strength is the chemistry and bond between her and Ryder, which during some scenes boils down to single hand movements to convey the tight-knit friendship that persists in a place so far from their level of comfort. It’s near-romantic levels of unity that defines what it means to be the shoulder to the other, and proves that the film has a lot of poetic beauty to combat its frightening realism.
– Entrancing visuals. This is seen through the eye of the movie’s meaningful photography, which often immerses us into the feelings and intentions of particular characters in frame. For the entirety of the film, it’s tightly claustrophobic, but beyond that faithfully committed to documenting facial resonation so that you interpret every feeling and emotion in what you see, instead of what you hear. On top of this, the intentionally grainy cinematography from Helene Louvart, who previously worked with Hittman on her breakout feature, “Beach Rats”, is all the more effective at capturing the essence and color of life, before it is typically glossed-up by production companies who value style over substance. This not only benefits the documentary feel the movie is going for that I previously mentioned, but allows circumstance of character to dictate setting, and never vice versa.
– Layered exposition. When the dialogue is depended on, it serves as an informative tool that peels back the layers of Autumn’s story in a way that confirms why her decisions have led her to this road to decide on having an abortion. It’s every bit heartbreaking as it is intelligent in the ways it attains such information, most notably in my favorite scene in the movie, where Autumn is asked a series of questions for pre-admission into her appointment. This scene dives into the past of her sexual relationship, and commands the attention of the audience for the patience in editing that results in several long takes, but beyond that how each question unearths another psychological trauma that exists within Autumn’s mind, like a ghost of regret coming back to haunt her. When scenes of dialogue aren’t at the foreground of the scene’s dynamic, other conversations and small talk rewards the audience in a way that appreciates their attention towards every detail, and gives the film strong meaning for future watches, that may better paint what could’ve easily been missed in passing.
– Relentlessly informative. Even above an entertaining quality, the film has a poignancy in its social commentary that goes a long way in painting the picture that many women endure when they make a decision that they’re never able to escape or overcome. Regardless how you feel about this particular issue, the film’s approach is one of honesty, regardless of how compromising it could be towards the film’s pacing, or depressing towards the audience’s interpretation of the film. Throughout, there were several instances where I winced at scenes of discomfort, or was left appalled because of the nature of outside sources who don’t know Autumn, nor understand her situation, and would instead judge her based on one lone decision that makes her anything but happy. It teaches us that we have a long way to go for equality in this world, but beyond that strikes a chord with the hypocritically naive of our generation, whose misconceptions about matters they’re not informed about hurt and scar the victims left with this burden of consequence long after the procedure has been done. Every step of Autumn’s journey feels as tall as a mountain, and provides no shortage of food-for-thought for someone in her position where geographical and monetary dispositions leave her seeking out desparate measures to seek clarity.
– Mystery man. In most movies, a figure that is hinted at but never exposed would drive me crazy, but with Hittman’s stirring direction it proves that the who isn’t as important as the what in this case, and instead brings forth no shortage of possibilities in theories that allows this film to live on in the minds of its audience after the end credits finish rolling. For my money, there are three men who could very well be the father to Autumn’s pregnancy. None of them are discredited, nor are they that extremely illogical considering the cast of male figures that fill her life. The first is obviously the boy at the opening scene talent show, who calls her a whore while she’s on stage. Her reactions when being around this character make him the biggest possibility, but not the only one. The stepfather also unnerves me, with his quips and teases towards his adopted daughter. This is a bit of a stretch, but not entirely when you consider they are so coldly distant and unresounding towards the other, hinting that a bigger secret could be developing between them. Finally, the pervert store manager, whose affection at the end of employee shifts was only the first in a line of eye-opening problems existing in this world and ours. I appreciate a film that doesn’t cater to who could be responsible, and instead invests in the loneliness and despair that Autumn feels by investing every penny she has in a bus steering towards uncertainty.
– Rise of Eliza. With a last name like “Hittman”, you know her direction better be precise, and thanks to the unflinching focus and the constant ball of nerves that this film earns and maintains throughout, it proves that her direction is the kind that constantly hits its target. Everything enclosed is so focused, and so full of these raw moments that could only come from someone who has lived through these experiences. But beyond that, it’s the intimacy of the film’s visuals to never stray far from our characters, which gives it an unmistakably vibrant seal of authenticity that very few directors reach when bringing forth a passion project that is years in the making. It matters so much more in the film’s minimal dialogue approach that Eliza’s direction be all the more mesmerizing, considering her language of emotion is one that relies on movements and expressions over spoon-fed intentions. Finally, the care and concern she takes with her characters, particularly her two leading ladies, makes her an invisibly constant third lady in this group, if only for the way she constantly depicts their every movement, and even some that would be sacrificed on the editing room floor in a lesser-helmed movie. It proves that Eliza has her finger on the pulse of every spectrum within this film’s production, and makes her a force to be reckoned with in the coming years of her promising filmography.
– Maturity. Despite being a film that is so full of the opposition spewing venom towards the women of today who are met with such an unfortunate choice, the movie’s commentary is the kind the doesn’t retaliate or demand vengeance, instead choosing to let the force of the opposition vibrantly paint the picture. This not only allows the audience to judge everything for themselves, but also proves that this movie doesn’t have a hidden agenda or underlying intention in catering to one side of the political or religious coin for gain. It takes a great deal of restraint from Hittman, as well as the right kind of delivery from her talented ensemble to keep this from ever feeling like an inspirational strike back, relying more on the grit and toughness of the ladies to sell their empathy to the indulgence of the audience who constantly commend them. It never allows retaliation to take control of its film, proving that its heart is in the right place, even when the desire to fire back feels in reaching distance.
– Plot convenience. This is a very small problem, but one that I felt contradicted the personalities and unity of the girls mission while in New York. During the early stages of the second act, we are introduced to a male character, who becomes a somewhat prominent figure in the film’s second half. My problem with this is two-fold. First, the girls would never give a male stranger an accurate phone number while in a city that they’ve never been to. They think they’ll be there for one night, so why even bother attempting to get to know someone? Beyond that, it’s all a big convenience to help with an unforeseen problem that springs during the film’s climatic third act conflict, and one that stands as the only “Manufactured movie moment” of the script during my experience with the film, producing one of those moments where you know something is only introduced to help with something else later on. The film’s lack of exposition and backstory for this character only cements these feelings, and makes for the lone hiccup in a near perfect cinematic experience.
My Grade: 9/10 or A