Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Another week of this: Movie theaters are closed, but movies are still “opening.” A case in point this weekend is Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, an award-winner at the Sundance and Berlin festivals, which Focus Features is making available this weekend On Demand. Hittman’s first features, It Felt Like Love, and Beach Rats, are available at Scarecrow, by the way. Here’s a review of the new one.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
“This is the most magical sound you will ever hear,” says the sing-songy nurse, administering the ultrasound to Autumn, our pregnant 17-year-old heroine. The nurse turns the volume up, and—well, yes, all right, maybe you can pick up the presence of a heartbeat within the noise that comes out of the machine. But the overall impression is of a weird, ominous mechanical roar, which hangs uncomfortably in the air while the nurse waits for the heart-warmed response.
Nothing against people who experience a magicked reaction, but Autumn (played by Sidney Flanigan) is not having it. She doesn’t want to be pregnant, she’s in a small-town Pennsylvania clinic where the nurses are quick to reach for the anti-abortion scare-videos, and she’s isolated within a messed-up (and never entirely explained) family dynamic. This is the setting for Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a steady and sympathetic—but not sentimental—film about the near-impossibility of getting an abortion for a teenager living in the wrong situation.
The right situation, as far as getting an abortion is concerned, is in New York City, which is where Autumn and her teenaged cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) travel for the procedure. They encounter roadblocks, nice people and not-nice people, and their own frayed nerves. Hittman’s style looks fairly grungy and naturalistic, but there’s a lot of selection going on: She leaves out enough information to create a sense of mystery about certain things, yet roots the story in authentic places and situations. This drama is shaped by smart structural devices and repetitions; watch the way Hittman emphasizes hands at key moments in the narrative (including the bewildering and skeezy habit of the cousins’ supermarket manager kissing their hands), so that by the time hands reach for each other in a crucial connection, the gesture is especially moving.
Hittman seems to be experimenting with the acting, too. This is Flanigan’s first movie credit, and she plays Autumn in a minimalist style, without much visible acting going on. In fact, she’s most animated when singing two songs—one at the film’s opening, as she sings about a broken heart at a school talent show, and later murmuring “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” in karaoke. The almost Bressonian approach pays off in a long sequence as Autumn answers a questionnaire from a kindly nurse, the answers to which give the film its title. Co-star Ryder, by contrast, is much more “on,” with visibly starry energy, and the contrast works fine for the two friends and their chemistry.
The film’s willingness to allow some issues to remain unanswered is a big part of its lingering power. It’s a much more focused work than It Felt Like Love (I haven’t seen Beach Rats), as though Hittman’s ability to corral distinctive details and memories were now joined to a more rigorous editorial sense. Even the fact that it shows Autumn to be her own worst enemy (well, almost) is like a bit of sand in the oyster. Never Rarely Sometimes Always lets people be good and bad, right and wrong, without losing sight of the reality that something in this system is fucked up and needs improvement.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.