Newcomer Sidney Flanigan is a star.
Flanigan gives what will unquestionably be one of the year's best performances in writer/director Eliza Hittman's mesmerizing and unforgettable Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a film that picked up a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Neorealism at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the Jury Grand Prix at Berlin, and received my hometown Heartland International Film Festival's Truly Moving Picture Award for its remarkable portrayal of two teenage girls, Autumn (Flanigan) and Skylar (Talia Ryder), who struggle on their journey to New York City after Autumn becomes pregnant and needs to travel there for an abortion.
While it sounds from the rather simple storyline like we might be in for simple, formulaic fare, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is anything but formulaic and is easily 2020's best film to date.
There's already a heaviness in the air when we meet Autumn, an enthusiastic 17-year-old singing her heart out at her high school's talent show. Authenticity is one of those trendy words we don't like to use anymore, but Autumn oozes an earthy naturalism that lets us know she's not like the other teens who surround her.
There's something more to Autumn and it goes far beyond the fact that she's now 17-years-old and pregnant. She lives in a Pennsylvania town with parents (played by Sharon Van Etten and Ryan Eggold) who don't seem to get her and don't seem to want her. Her only friend seems to be her cousin Skylar, who works alongside her at a local supermarket and is the closest thing she's got to a true confidante.
It's been said that writer/director Eliza Hittman, whose 2013 film It Felt Like Love was nominated for the John Cassavetes Award in the Independent Spirit Awards, was inspired to write Never Rarely Sometimes Always as a feminist response to the perceived male gaze of 2007's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, a film that will unquestionably come to mind while viewing Never Rarely Sometimes Always if you've seen the Romanian drama.
Indeed, there's simply no question that Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a reminist response, not just to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days but to a misogynistic world that controls womens' bodies and choices and lives without a single care about the consequences.
At a time when the world needs a film like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, it's infuriating that the film, which was headed for theatrical release with Focus Features, has been relegated to an April 3rd VOD release thanks to a rapidly spiraling COVID-19 pandemic that is also being further manipulated to even further restrict a woman's right to choose under the guise of it being "elective."
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is certainly about abortion, but it's about much more than abortion. Concepts like parental notification and waiting periods seem perfectly fine until they're not and in Never Rarely Sometimes Always the complexities of abortion and choice are incredibly complex.
Hittman brings it all to life magnificently, avoiding all the usual histrionic notes in favor of understated drama and micro-details that layer everything that unfolds. Autumn tries to resolve her dilemma herself, but when that fails she turns to Skylar. It's telling, but not particularly surprising, that she doesn't turn to her parents who, in Pennsylvania, must consent to the procedure.
For a good portion of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Flanigan portrays Autumn in an understated, at times uncomfortably silent manner that lingers and practically suffocates the cinematic landscape. We can feel Autumn, but Flanigan isn't letting us know her. This changes and when it does it's the kind of cinematic transformation that best actress awards are made for. Every fiber of Autumn's being transforms, years of repression presenting themselves as a primal scream of sorts that to this moment I still can't forget.
Talia Ryder is equally riveting as Skylar, a grittier and more pronounced performance letting us know why Autumn seems to trust her with her entire being at what is one of her most vulnerable moments.
If you saw this year's The Assistant, you have an ever so slight glimpse of the world created by Hittman and the world into which Autumn and Skylar submit themselves. It's a man's world and they're not particularly welcome, forcing their way along despite micro-aggression after micro-aggression after micro-aggression. Hittman doesn't soften the edges here at all, though the film's rated PG_13 and avoids anything overly graphic the message is undeniably clear that Autumn is, all day every day, a teenage girl made in a world that was designed to not just crush her but humiliate her in the process.
Hittman excels at portraying the complex world of abortion and choice, though she's not hesitant to also paint the misogynistic world in which these political and faux religious debates are brought to life. You can argue theology or politics all you want, but it's about control and politics and religion are used to make that control happen.
It bears repeating that both Flanigan and Ryder give stand-out, breakthrough performances here. There's never a moment when their journey feels anything less than honest, while both actresses offer a spontaneity that feels alive and energized and as if we're actually watching their journey truly unfold. These performances are remarkable and they deserve to be remembered come year's end.
Julia Holter's original score is immersive and emotionally revealing, while Helene Louvart's lensing is bold and intimate and unafraid to linger in the silences on faces and bodies and truths revealed and unrevealed.
Eliza Hittman had already proven herself to be a remarkable filmmaker with It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, but with Never Rarely Sometimes Always she becomes one of contemporary cinema's upper tier filmmakers with a clarity of vision, disciplined sense of purpose, and a willingness to trust her performers resulting in a remarkable, transformational cinematic experience. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is both intellectually satisfying and emotionally resonant, an intimate revolution of heart, mind, body, and soul that claims space and unapologetically demands equity of self-determination.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always opens Friday, April 3rd through VOD platforms.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic