The Right Choice: Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
Though she has made independent films seen by a limited audience, Eliza Hittman has staked a legitimate claim as one of the foremost chroniclers of American youth.
Her first feature, It Felt Like Love (2013), is an unsettling loss-of-innocence saga as experienced by two blue-collar teenagers. Her follow up, Beach Rats (2017), tracks a young boy struggling with his sexual identity. Both films comment separately yet similarly on the fears and anxiety of navigating the awkward teen years while encroaching on purely adult spaces.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is Hittman’s third film to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Award for neorealism. Once again, Hittman revisits the turmoil of adolescence, and this time the topical issue of a woman’s right to choose is the focal point.
One could argue that Eliza Hittman makes political films without political theatrics. She takes sides in the hot-button topics her work addresses, but with little of the righteous hollering that tends to accompany issue films. Beach Rats, for instance, advocates quietly for the freedom to exist as a sexual minority. And Never Rarely Sometimes Always is cut from this same cloth. The protagonist is 17-year-old Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan,) a deliberately unknowable figure who, as the opening scene clearly demonstrates, seems happy enough singing in a high school talent show. This brief moment of joy is interrupted when a male classmate hurls a sexual slur her way.
Hittman wastes little time in revealing that Autumn is in fact pregnant. The circumstances surrounding the pregnancy are of no interest to the director, in addition to the question of who exactly is the father. She smartly dispatches with these concerns in a matter-of-fact manner that serves the story. There isn’t much backstory that explains Autumn’s palpable reticence, but the screenplay hints of abuse at the hands of a father figure in her life.
Used to looking out for herself, Autumn quickly makes a decision. An attempt to get an abortion in small-town Pennsylvania hits a roadblock when it turns out parental permission is required — plus it isn’t something that is done routinely. Autumn rides a bus to New York City, accompanied by her cousin and best friend Skylar (Talia Ryder), who demonstrates her loyalty in a simple yet powerful, wordless act of sacrifice.
The rest of Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows the two teens as they go on an unforgettable journey, one that is both physically demanding and emotionally draining. Navigating the bureaucracy of the American system isn’t an easy undertaking, but this is far from the only challenge that Autumn and Skylar are forced to reckon with. They test the contours of their sisterhood while fending off the constant intrusions of a young man (Théodore Pellerin) who takes a romantic interest in Skylar.
In the film’s final act, Hittman explores this dynamic further, positioning this male character first as a harmless savior, then as an increasingly disturbing bother whose continual presence dredges up feelings of apprehension in the girls’ minds, as well as among the audience.
This fine calibration of tone and mastery of mood elevates NRSA from the trappings of a humdrum drama to a stunning, compelling piece of art. The film is a dramatic enactment of a girl’s right to choose, in some ways serving as a mild corrective to the Romanian Palme d’Or winner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Hittman says she wasn’t impressed by the casual shaming present in the 2007 film. But Never Rarely Sometimes Always also plays as a quiet neorealism thriller in which dread is ever present, triggered by random acts of professionalism or even friendship. You never quite know the repercussions of salient exchanges. The cinematography’s dreamlike hue only heightens the pervasive anxiety.
Lean on dialogue, Hittman’s screenplay is quiet and takes its time. Her direction is confident and self-aware, convincingly turning her protagonist’s detachment into compulsive viewing.
The bond between Autumn and Skylar gives Never Rarely Sometimes Always a lot of its power. The two actresses may be newcomers, but their lived-performances are so convincing that it is easy to be pulled into their aggressions. Flanigan especially rises to the occasion in the scene that gives the film its title, as well as a lot of its emotional power.
In this scene, Autumn is required to fill out some forms ostensibly to assess the state of her health. Any woman who has ever been to a health facility has an idea of how intrusive and relentless these questions usually are, most ending with the four options that the film’s title adopts. Perhaps for the first time, Autumn appears overwhelmed, and every feeling going through the character’s being — from irritation to doubt, fear to exhaustion — flickers across Flanigan’s face, where Hittman wisely keeps the camera.
Good thing then that Autumn has Skylar for company on this emotionally perilous journey. The two young women don’t always agree, but as the camera constantly focuses on them lugging a heavy suitcase around the city, it is obvious that these two share a universal burden that binds them in unspeakable ways. Like the suitcase, they also carry the weight of the aftershocks of legislation on women’s bodies, created by men who have no idea what it’s like to exist in this world as a woman. Hittman never resorts to didacticism, but the film’s message is profoundly clear.
Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.