starring Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
written and directed by Eliza Hittman
by Walter Chaw In Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a young woman seeking an abortion finds one. There's not much controversy in my mind as to whether or not she should have it, since the film suggests, in a lovely, oblique way, that her pregnancy is the product of abuse--maybe probably definitely absolutely through an incestual relationship with her creepy stepfather (Ryan Eggold). Hittman doesn't say that this is so, but she doesn't say that it isn't so, either. From what we glean of the stepfather's meanness and cruelty to the family dog, and then from the way our hero, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), reacts to questions about the father of the MacGuffin, we, you know, put things together. Mostly, what we put together is that Never Rarely Sometimes Always is less interested in those details than it is in painting a portrait of how terrifying men are, which is utterly true and also not exceptionally revelatory, as revelations go.
I think the film might be about how it should be easier for women, especially minors, to obtain an abortion in small towns, and that might well be true. The film could also be about how the people who work at abortion clinics in small towns are religious rubes and bullies and should be ashamed of trying to talk women out of what they've deemed to be "elective" procedures. I liked very much a scene where, out of frustration and fear, Autumn starts punching herself in the stomach to try to induce a miscarriage. What happens when a young woman who needs an abortion is denied one? Hittman is unsparing in these moments, and I appreciated not only the artful reveal of Autumn's bruises when she submits to an ultrasound, but also how there isn't a lot of interrogation of her for it, as interrogation as a means towards exposition at that point would have felt on-the-nose. I did wonder, though, if the progressive big-city clinic shouldn't have been more concerned about Autumn as a suicide risk. Maybe it's none of their business. Maybe it's none of mine. But there's got to be a happy medium between ambiguity and proselytizing.
What Never Rarely Sometimes Always excels at is portraying how the world is incredibly challenging for young women to navigate. The good man in the film is a creepy kid, Jaspar (Théodore Pellerin), they meet en route. He takes an immediate and aggressive interest in Skylar, inviting her to a club and pestering her until she gives him her phone number. When Skylar and Autumn find themselves stranded and overextended, Skylar trades a make-out session with Jaspar in exchange for a trip to the ATM. Hittman shoots this bit without exposition, too, separating Skylar from Autumn and then reuniting them with a surreptitious hand-holding around a column to illustrate how the young women understand the sacrifices they must make in order to survive and that they appreciate and love one another. The moment is nice, even if it feels curiously inconsequential. I know they love each other already.
The muted performances are excellent. Flanigan has received the bulk of the attention, and she's very good, though I wonder if the breakout star of this film won't be Ryder. It's not a competition, of course, but I was reminded of the dynamic in Ghost World between an outstanding but largely acted-upon Thora Birch and a less-obviously good but ultimately more riveting Scarlett Johansson. Watch Ryder in an early scene asking her disgusting supermarket manager/boss for permission to leave early to take her sick cousin home. Ryder juggles his sad come-on, his wheedling bullying, and her obvious concern for Flanigan's character with unpracticed, natural ease. She conveys the weight of this stupid world's power imbalance, of a capitalist system designed to make slaves of 99% of its people. Ryder's Skylar becomes the focus of the film for me here: the possessor of a secret, the true guardian of another's life, the friend and mother and partner for Autumn, who suffers Autumn's understandable aggression and solipsism. Things happen to Autumn that are terrible and lead to more things that are terrible, yet Skylar is the one in Never Rarely Sometimes Always burdened with difficult choices. She can help or not help; keep a secret or tell it; sacrifice herself or not. The fascination of this film for me is why she does what she does. Is it out of loyalty? Friendship? Love? Is it because they're both women in a wild wood beset by wolves? I love the not knowing exactly why, as well as the purity of Ryder's take on it, which appears to be that Skylar doesn't know why she's doing it, either, only that it's the right thing to do. There's something Budd Boetticher about that moral/causal complexity. As for the rest of it? Meh.