Friday, September 18, 2020


Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a great political film because it’s only personal. It’s a character study that uses that lens to be about inequalities and oppression, about casual sexism and the grinding impoverishment of our young and vulnerable. The film sits squarely on the shoulders of a troubled teenager (Sidney Flanigan) who is 17 and pregnant. She hasn’t been for long. She doesn’t want to be. She shouldn’t be. We don’t know how it happened, but it’s clear it shouldn’t go on. She hasn’t the resources. She hasn’t the support. And yet there’s no way for her to get a medical procedure that’d enable her to move on with her life. Shot with a quotidian beauty and realist patience, Hittman, whose previous films like Beach Rats and It Felt Like Love similarly carried a tremulous sense of marginalized lives and quiet desperation, here makes her greatest film. It’s a patient, impeccably attuned character study that simply regards its main character’s plight. The girl recruits a friend (Talia Ryder) to accompany her on a savings-draining trip across state lines, out of Pennsylvania and into New York in search of the closest clinic that’ll help her without a parent’s signature. The two young women hang out, talk softly, wander aimlessly, and navigate red tape. At one point, loitering in the train station while they await an early morning appointment, they’re joined by a slightly older young man (Théodore Pellerin) who tries to befriend them, hangs out with them, shows them around a few blocks, and all the while has no idea the deep burden that is their purpose. He’s carefree in ways they never could be.

Hittman’s wise, soulful film is perched precisely on sensitive emotional pressure points, with the pretty dancing grain of its cinematography and the editing’s graceful pacing full of pregnant pauses that leverage the unspoken for great power. Hittman’s screenplay, exquisitely realized, is all about the spaces between the lines, the glances between the friends, the long, freighted tension around a family table, or in every softly spoken question from a social worker (Kelly Chapman) who sits off screen for the film’s centerpiece of patiently drawn emotional revelations. There the girl is quietly walked through an intake form that screens for abuse and neglect—a scene that sits square in close-up as she’s steadily, then unsteadily, then cautiously, then carefully, and so on, answers the questions one after another. It goes on and on and on, peeling layers and growing scar tissue in a sensitive cycle. Her face speaks more than her voice, a whole life backstory unraveling in subtext and dropped eye contact and subtle dancing tears. It’s a powerhouse, all the more effective for not going for melodrama or messaging. It’s a deeply moral vision of the consequences of blind right-wing sloganeering, emphatically empathetic as we stare into the face of one whose life choices have been made far more difficult than they should be. This is a powerful and humane expression of the value of a young woman’s life and decisions, and the casual callousness it takes to deny her what should be immutable.

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