Patrick Preziosi on Eliza Hittman’s ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ (2020)
A director of frank deromanticisation, Eliza Hittman’s films have fashioned adolescence as a believably hazy landscape of resignation and barely perceptible small victories. In It Felt Like Love (2013), Beach Rats (2017), and now Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the director has mostly elided conventional dramatic arcs for percolating tensions, stolen glances, and fleeting instants of startling tactility. In lieu of histrionics, Hittman derives a sense of moody waywardness from subtly constructed inter-character dynamics, which are inextricable from the physical locations they play out within, crafting a symbiotic narrative tool that elevates the material beyond clean-cut dialogue. Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ scope may reach beyond the deep-Brooklyn enclaves of its predecessors, but such experiential tactfulness remains, ensuring that the film is no lateral move, but the first of hopefully many vertical ascensions in an already considerable body of work.
This unerring emphasis on the sensorial renders Hittman’s older films as somewhat hermetic, especially for those unable to penetrate her cinema of pure suggestion, or latch onto the hyper-specific regional signifiers. However, this keen sense of place is deployed to different effect in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, mainly in fostering a sense of unfamiliarity with one’s surroundings. Only someone so attuned to New York City could also imbue it with so much latent dread and sheer, all-imposing largeness. Thus, the wide-eyed, tight-lipped intimidation of 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) is resoundingly affecting when the two-step off a bus in the bowels of Port Authority, absconding from their native Cumberland County, Pennsylvania so the former can receive an abortion without parental consent.
The procedure falls prey to inter-state variances of abortion law in the cousins’ hometown, which not only requires the presence of parents for minors, but also husbands for their spouses. The Pennsylvania Hittman captures is one eager to be preserved in the amber of the past, still beholden to “the kids are alright” ethos that ran rampant from the 1950s on — as displayed in the talent show that opens the film, featuring acapella fellas and Elvis impersonators — which resultingly mischaracterises abortion as unforgivably taboo. Autumn strikes an already contrasting figure, as her talent show contribution is a raw, stripped-down take on girl-group The Exciters’ “He’s Got the Power”. She’s heckled by a male audience member before she reaches the last chorus.
Other local interactions follow a similar, willfully ignorant trajectory, where female autonomy is swiftly denied and altogether ignored. Autumn and Skylar are subjected to slovenly planted kisses on their hands by an unseen male supervisor each time they pass cash deposits through a slot at their grocery store job. At home, Autumn’s relationship with her own mother (Sharon Van Etten) is compromised by the presence of her stepfather (Ryan Eggold), a simmeringly violent man, whose brief, relatively tempered time on screen still implies an entire history of manifold abuse. Any sort of friction or larger issue is paved over but never addressed by those in Autumn’s life, such as her mother being content enough just to hand her a beer and sit quietly in front of the television while her husband lavishes the family dog in belly-rubs and “you little slut” repeatedly.
Even more troubling is Autumn’s trip to her meager women’s health clinic, staffed by two matronly types, whose only guidance in the matter of this feared pregnancy is to offer an over-the-counter test and espouse the virtues of childbirth and subsequent adoption, if the mother were to feel unfit. She is even manipulated by the receptionist, who, detecting Autumn’s manifest interest when asked if she’s “abortion minded”, sits her down in front of a fearmongering VHS titled “Hard Truth”. This stigma undoubtedly runs deep, but in a remarkably wordless sequence, where empathy and intent is telegraphed by scattered glimpses of online bus tickets, a packed suitcase, and Skyler pocketing some of her shift’s cash drop, Autumn’s cousin becomes her unspoken companion in making the trip to New York to circumvent Pennsylvania’s archaic abortion laws.
There’s no glaring or patronising delineation from suburbia to the cosmopolitan to be found in the film; every choice made by the girls is brought forth with a sober necessity, which is complemented with a remarkable capacity for formal restraint on the part of Hittman and Beach Rats DP Hélène Louvart (who’s worked with similarly texture-minded filmmakers such as Alice Rohrwacher and Mati Diop). New York City then is no cultural mecca to become gleefully lost in, but another suppository of frequent roadblocks and speed-bumps, forced are the out-of-towners to navigate an entire transit system, as well as fending off posturing suitors (“New York’s, like, my favorite city” unwelcomingly pipes a fellow passenger) and, most harrowingly, a public masturbator.
Even Planned Parenthood, a beacon of progressivism in light of the quietly pro-life Pennsylvania, is replete with its own bureacratic redtape and lack of funding. Autumn’s appointment is for the Brooklyn office, but since her pregnancy is actually at 18 weeks — not the 10 she was initially told — she’s redirected to the Manhattan location, that, while better equipped for Autumn’s circumstances, also extends the cousin’s trip beyond the point of their own economic stability, as well as any plausible deniability they could pledge to their parents.
Hittman maintains her deceptive realism regardless of the stakes of any given moment; Louvart’s camera is rigorously trained on Autumn and her own subjective experience, which is never attenuated even as she’s physically dwarfed by New York City. Verité handheld plants us in the bustle of crowded subways and downtown arcades, before suddenly, the camera will steadily undertake a tracking shot of Autumn trying to find Skylar (after she’s gone off with a lecherous older boy in hopes of securing some more cash), adopting an eerie placidity that effectively conveys the equal feelings of concern and abandonment. Utilising Port Authority as a central location fashions something of a genius, if cruel, irony, that in a space defined by comings and goings, the two girls are bound — even trapped — in the bus station until Autumn’s procedure is complete, and they have the money to return home.
Louvart transports this dichotomy of shaky naturalism and communicative artfulness to the clinics themselves (many of which feature the actual staff), capturing Autumn in her restless uneasiness in waiting rooms and offices, before suddenly swooping over and around her in examination and operating rooms. When Hittman holds absolute stillness is when the film toes the all-out emotional collapse it frequently teases, especially in the interview sequence the title is derived from. Speaking with a Planned Parenthood social worker, Autumn has to answer questions about her sexual history with “never”, “rarely”, “sometimes” or “always”. Instead of wringing Autumn’s plight for all its soapbox-worthy drama however, Hittman has the truly excellent Flanigan withdraw even further into herself, a tragic victim of institutionalized abuse admitting to such in a series of tearful pull-backs and pregnant pauses.
Leaving Autumn’s own past an evocative blank feels like a respectful decision made on Hittman’s part, allowing her character to preserve her own singularity purely on account of the period of time the audience spends with her. To remove the frills from an issue as abortion, and then represent such with a procedural straightforwardness retroactively cheapens the now shock-effects of Cristian Mungíu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), and pushes the already risible Juno (2007) further out of the conversation. There is no sweeping, catch-all to be imported at the end of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, as the very process it puts to film is one of extreme mutability, and that simultaneous quelling and affirmation of one’s autonomy pulses all too affectingly throughout.
Available to stream now on Amazon.