Eliza Hittman’s first two features, It Felt Like Love (2013) and Beach Rats (2017), center on teenagers slouching toward rude sexual awakenings. Both films were well-received, but for the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd, “there has to this point been something a little monotonal” about Hittman’s “unvarnished downers.” But Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which has premiered at Sundance and will screen in competition in Berlin next month before opening in theaters on March 13, is “the movie I’ve been waiting for from her.”
Newcomer Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn, a seventeen-year-old facing an unwanted pregnancy. In rural Pennsylvania, where Autumn works as a cashier with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), abortion is available to underage women only with the consent of their parents. And for Autumn, that’s not an option. Skylar lifts a wad of cash from the supermarket, packs a single suitcase for the two of them, and together, they take a bus to New York. The “wordless and unwavering support” Skylar offers “is one of the film’s most understated yet moving touches,” finds Jason Bailey at the Playlist.
The title of the film is the list of four possible answers to questions a counsellor puts to Autumn during an interview at Planned Parenthood. But Autumn is “so inured to enduring in silence that she’s almost resentful that someone is actually taking an interest in her well-being,” writes Alison Willmore at Vulture: “Your partner has refused to wear a condom—never, rarely, sometimes, always. Your partner has made you have sex when you didn’t want to—never, rarely, sometimes, always. The camera holds on Flanigan’s face for a long, unbearable stretch in which she’s broken open by the act of being asked about herself and not just the pregnancy she traveled across state lines to terminate.” For Slate’s Sam Adams, this is “an extraordinary scene, both in its superficial simplicity and the way you realize the movie has been building towards it without needing you to notice how it does.”
Navigating the big city for these two teens is a challenge made all the more daunting when they learn that, because Autumn is farther along in her pregnancy than she realized, they’ll have to stay for three days—and they’re out of money. “Remarkably,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times, the film “seems to draw every emotional layer out of a scenario with no good options, but without tilting into overt miserablism; there are consoling grace notes of humor and tenderness here, too.”
Hittman has been nursing this movie since 2012, when she read about a young woman in Ireland who’d died when she was denied what could have been a life-saving abortion. She tells Variety’s Brent Lang that when she took Beach Rats to Sundance in 2017, she found herself taking part in the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration, “and I just was inspired. It felt like the right moment to come back to the idea.”
She’d had an eye on Flanigan for a few years. “I thought Sidney would bring something that no one else could,” she tells Lang. “There were a lot of really talented young actresses who came in and read for the role, but I felt like if I made a very polished version of this movie with some actress you recognized, it would be a different movie.” Jason Bailey speaks for many when he writes that Never is Hittman’s “strongest work to date, patiently introducing its characters and conflicts, building up a full head of emotional steam so subtly, you don’t realize what she’s doing until it’s done.”
Several critics have drawn comparisons to Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). “I think it’s a film that is masterfully executed,” Hittman tells Film Comment’s Devika Girish, “and yet it left me wanting so much more from the female character who was actually pregnant. I felt that her representation was somewhat misogynistic, because she’s depicted as being really naive and careless. I didn’t find it empathetic toward her. I wanted to make a film about two women in a similar predicament that was really empathetic to both of their journeys.”
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