Winner of Silver Bear Award at this year’s Berlinale and winner of Special Jury Award at Sundance, rising indie film-maker Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) is a somber yet poetic depiction of teen pregnancy that’s entirely free of melodramatic excess and didacticism. Eliza Hittman made her feature-length directorial debut with It Felt Like Love (2013), an intriguing portrait of an awkward adolescent girl who eschews coming-of-age drama clichés. She followed it up with Beach Rats (2017), and eroticized portrayal of young male bodies that drew a lot of comparisons with Claire Denis’ rapturous Beau Travail (1999). The dreamlike exploration of aimless teenager’s conflict also prompted viewers to draw parallels to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), who serves as one of the producers for Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
Writer/director Eliza Hittman shows a penchant for effectively dramatizing the interior struggles of her adolescent characters. In fact, Never Rarely Sometimes Always perfectly captures the solitude and pain of the young like no other indie feature. Moreover, it’s well-grounded in the suffocating reality, which Eliza studies through an anthropological lens rather than eking out conventional drama. The film abruptly opens in a high-school talent show in rural Pennsylvania, where our 17-year-old protagonist Autumn Callahan (newcomer Sidney Flanigan), achingly sings “He´s Got the Power” song (the lyrics sounds ‘darker’ in this situation). A jerk disrupts her singing by shouting “slut”. Agitated and embarrassed, Autumn looks at her parents and friend (sitting among the audience) but finishes the song to a big round of applause.
Soon, we learn Autumn is caught in an atmosphere of normalized (verbal) abuse, more evident in her dad’s (Ryan Eggold) passive-aggressive behavior which virtually goes unnoticed in front of the mother (Sharon Van Etten). The deep-rooted sexism in Autumn’s hometown is perpetually touched in an nuanced manner, especially when the 17-year-old girl learns that she is pregnant. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a drama of micro-aggressions and nothing is explicitly stated. We never learn the root of Autumn’s trauma (the reason behind her pregnancy) or the girl’s sexual history. Eliza Hittman rather vividly captures how Autumn navigates through the prison of toxic masculinity and deals with her unexpected pregnancy. But this is not just a flat narrative on abortion experience. It’s also a powerful character study, a poignant tale of friendship and resilience. Most importantly, Eliza puts a face and voice to a person, who is otherwise viewed as a statistic and perceived through a very biased lens.
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Autumn tries to discreetly deal with her crisis by going to a Planned Parenthood kind of office. But the people there, to Autumn’s surprise, try to scare her from aborting. When she learns that Pennsylvanian state law dictates parental consent is necessary (for a minor) to get an abortion, she swallows a bunch of Vitamin C pills, and choked with anguish, delivers punches to her stomach (a deeply discomfiting moment). Autumn works at a grocery store with her friendly and compassionate cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder). The manager of the store is another classic-case of power-abusing predator, who kisses their hand when they give him the money from the till at the end of their shift. Skylar upon learning about Autumn’s crisis steals money from the sleazebag manager, and sets off with her cousin to a crisis pregnancy center in New York City.
Then, the long-distance travel becomes the focus of the narrative as Autumn, guided by Sklyar’s sisterly support, goes through the bureaucracy of abortion and tackles the financial obstacles. Well, this is not a regular New York movie. Hence the thriving, big city doesn’t bestow them with a transformative experience. Eliza Hittman’s New York is devoid of romanticism, and the drama here largely unfolds in subterranean spaces and inside daunting buildings. She captures the shock of arriving to New York from a small town, while navigating through the chaos and facing little indignities. Never Rarely Sometimes Always reaches out for some kind of drama when the girls meet a pushy young white lad (Theodore Pellerin) in the bus, who gets Skylar’s number and insists on them hanging out in New York. Caught in a moment of desperation, Skylar calls him and the ensuing encounter feels more oppressive and dangerous.
Director Eliza Hittman packs the narrative with subtly remarkable moments that’s further bolstered by the two outstanding central performances. Despite being an acting debut, Flanigan fascinatingly reveals the depth of her emotional scars, even though she largely remains downcast and cagey. We may not fully understand Autumn’s experiences or feelings, but Flanigan elicits greater empathy for her character without an inch of melodrama. She also nails Autumn’s incommunicable emotional anxiety in the moments of deafening silence and during her indifferent attitude towards Skylar. Talia Ryder is equally brilliant as Skylar. She doesn’t judge hre cousin and Eliza’s layered writing penetrates beneath Skylar’s rebellious attitude and zeroes-in on her own vulnerabilities.
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The most memorable scene of Never Rarely Sometimes Always is clearly the moment from which the title is derived. In a single, unbroken close-up, Eliza Hitmann subjects her protagonist to undertake a questionnaire before the emergency contraception procedure. The questionnaire consists of multiple-choice answers, which pertain to Autumn’s sexual history, activity, and abuse. As the questions get increasingly uncomfortable – the choice of Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t seem to be adequate enough to express the spectrum of her anguish – Autumn’s emotional armor gradually cracks up. It’s such a brilliantly understated moment that gets at the quieter truths regarding the young woman’s emotionality and yet the tight close-up never feels invasive, but only empathetic.
Viewers might gripe about the director’s allegedly unidimensional glimpses at the male characters. But the narrative rightly showcases the tense emotions a young woman has to constantly process while going through the world of men (perpetually averting their undesirable advances). Eventually, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (101 minutes) is much more than a didactic political messaging, tailored for the #MeToo era. It’s a compellingly intimate character study that establishes its hard-hitting narrative arc through very raw and real emotions, altogether dispelling the exploitative narrative devices; a perfect antithesis to the insufferable cutesiness of Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007).