Director: Eliza Hittman
Stars: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin
Eliza Hittman’s second feature Beach Rats was one of my favourite films of the last decade, though I never wrote about it here on The Lost Highway Hotel. Nevertheless, her sympathetic focus on American youth and her keen observational eye meant that whatever came next would be of interest.
Now, in the midst of Coronavirus lockdown, whatever’s next has arrived, stealthily slipped onto Amazon Prime here in the UK as if it didn’t even exist at all. Perhaps its the subject matter that has daunted the marketeers, though the film’s critical success should have allowed some method of avoiding its key theme and dirtiest word: abortion.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a 17-year-old girl living in a sleepy Pennsylvania suburb. She’s in school. She has a job on the checkout at a grocery store. She has an unhappy home life where at best she’s ignored, at worst she’s the subject of her step-father’s open hostility. She’s talented. She’s sullen. She’s also pregnant with no recourse to choose an abortion in her home state. At her local medical practice she’s shown a condescending video condemning such decisions. Unwilling to go through with the pregnancy, she travels to New York for the procedure she wants. Her work friend Skylar (Talia Ryder) goes with her.
Hittman follows the girls through three days with barely a word spoken. The silence between the two speaks volumes. Skylar is supportive but doesn’t know how to articulate her solidarity. Autumn is heavy with the weight of her mission and its implications for her life. The financial cost. The threat of reprisal at home when her parents find out. The stigma placed on a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body.
If it sounds like a piece burdened by righteous woes, it is, but said pressure doesn’t bog it down or render it an exercise in misery porn. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, Hittman’s continuing ability to allow her films to breathe. The silences in the picture don’t merely speak of her subjects’ inability or unwillingness to articulate themselves, but also act as recognition of the spaciousness of travel. Also, said silences shout in other ways. Skylar’s attentiveness to Autumn – or, later, lack of – is modulated by silence. Julia Holter’s music, meanwhile, doesn’t so much fill these gaps but makes their shape known. Her work here is wonderful and recalls the oceanic drones and tones of Stars of the Lid at their finest. It’s one of the most delicately contemplative scores since Yo La Tengo’s work on Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy.
Then there’s the revelation that is Sidney Flanigan. Autumn is a closed person. She’s troubled by her situation but she’s not an a-typical American high school girl. She’s a thinker, something Flanigan and Hittman again communicate effortlessly without the need for verbal diarrhea. There are transcendent moments that do focus around what Autumn has to say for herself, however. The scene which gives the film its title, in particular, will remain a standout for the year and it is nearly all down to Flanigan’s carefully calibrated and very giving performance choices.
Dynamics change in the latter part of the movie when a boy named Jasper (Théodore Pellerin) joins the duo, driving a wedge between them as Skylar’s attentions grow divided. In the context of their visit to New York, social activities like karaoke or bowling are given a strained, also absurd perspective. In the process, Hittman locks in on a very specific kind of grieving; a personal pain that happens in public, the world carrying on obliviously. A feeling that can seem cruel precisely because the world at large cannot see it.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quietly damning portrait of abortion in America, though it doesn’t soapbox. It’s grievances are rendered lightly. Religious protesters outside a clinic don’t give rise to dramatic combustion, but their presence feathers in a sense of societal shame that is positively arcane. Elsewhere, Hittman’s film documents how the American medical system itself is abusive – financially abusive – adding to the strains of those that need it. Throughout the film, Autumn and Skylar drag an exceedingly cumbersome suitcase through the city. It’s existence as metaphor is pressing.
Nevertheless, the picture is also fair. The care that Autumn does receive is largely very good and sympathetic, even if her local practitioners are responsible for at least one common blunder. In one very telling moment, Autumn even refuses an outstretched hand offering her support. Why? The complexities of pride, shame and an upbringing that has seemingly never encouraged her to rely on other people. All of which makes the underplayed bond between Autumn and Skylar all the more affecting. Their connection by even a pinky finger nearly brought this viewer to tears.
A great picture and also an important one. Though she uses quietude, Hittman’s voice is only getting louder.
August 19th 2002