Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Writer/Director Eliza Hittman Delivers Subtly Vocal Filmmaking With Never Rarely Sometimes Always

CW: Mentions of abortion, sexual harrasment and sexist language ahead.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always begins with its protagonist getting silenced.

During a high school talent show, Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) gets up and starts singing a song. While performing, someone from the crowd yells at her "SLUT!", inciting giggles from the audience. Callahan briefly pauses, understandably flustered by this outburst. She's able to finish up her song but the damage is done. Callahan's attempt to express herself musically only resulted in dehumanizing hardship. It isn't just at school that Callahan faces this kind of behavior. She receives similarly dismissive treatment from her stepfather. No wonder Autumn keeps to herself. Why ever speak up when it will only result in turmoil?

Autumn maintains her withdrawn demeanor even in the face of some momentous news. She's pregnant. A shocked Autumn is confronted with a choice on what to do next. Eventually, she decides to have an abortion. To get one without her parents knowing about it, though, she's gonna have to travel to New York City. That's quite a trek from her hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With her cousin Skylar (Talia Rider) in tow, Autumn begins to make the daunting journey to NYC. In one of many intriguing details in writer/director Eliza Hittman's screenplay, the fact that this adventure is perilous doesn't really have to do with the fact that Autumn is having an abortion.

Sure, sitting down to actually have the abortion is about as nerve-wracking as any medical procedure. But Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn't make the crux of its drama stem from Autumn being conflicted over the abortion. She knows from the start that this is what she wants and, because it's her own independent decision, it's framed as a good thing. Instead, the conflict in Never Rarely Sometimes Always stems from the fact that Autumn and Skylar's time in New York ends up being much longer than originally anticipated. An overnight stay ends up turning into multiple days spent in NYC. This is where problems emerge as we follow this duo trying to procure shelter, food, and all other necessities while waiting for Autumn's procedure to finish.

Tension also comes from the omnipresence of male entitlement. This trait is established right off the bat in an early scene of Skylar, at her grocery store clerk job, having to deal with a male customer persistently inviting her to his party. It's one of many authentically-rendered moments in Never Rarely Sometimes Always that captures how women are forced to smile and wave at gross behavior from dudes just to survive another day. Further eerie examples of this include Skylar's manager constantly kissing her on the hand and a guy named Jasper (Theodore Pellerin) who just will not live Skylar along on the bus ride to NYC.

Hittman always captures these interactions in a fascinating visual manner. The way she frames these scenes makes the behavior of the male characters apparent while keeping the cameras focus on Skylar and Autumn. To boot, the presence of these moments reinforces a tragic double-standard for men and women in American society. It's normalized for men to feel entitled to the bodies of women. Meanwhile, women, like Autumn, struggle to have any sort of autonomy over their own bodies. Autumn has to travel across state lines just to get proper abortion treatment. Hittman's trademark subdued style of filmmaking means this double standard is never spoken about explicitly during Never Rarely Sometimes Always. However, it's always there informing the overwhelming world Autumn and Skylar are trying to navigate.

The way both Hittman's writing and directing explore this double standard helps to make the lead characters of Never Rarely Sometimes Always so engaging. However, hardship alone doesn't define these characters. In fact, part of what makes Autumn and Skylar so engaging as characters are their more emotionally tender moments together. Hittman's impeccably-rendered bleak tone for Never Rarely Sometimes Always is punctuated by incredibly effective moments of kindness between the two lead characters. Skylar's early attempt to help get Autumn over her shift early. Skylar stowing away money for Autumn. Especially poignant is a climactic moment where the Autumn locks hands with Skylar while the latter character experiences a particularly overwhelming situation.

The balance between bleak scenes and a smattering of lighter moments, like Autumn and Skylar talking about bread, help to inform a sense of gripping realism into Never Rarely Sometimes Always. The tangible reality in this movie makes is truly incredible, particularly Never Rarely Sometimes Always' most difficult-to-watch scenes. Best of all these scenes is a sequence where Autumn must respond to a series of a deeply personal questions, including ones asking her if she's ever been abused by a romantic partner. Here, all the best elements of Never Rarely Sometimes Always coalesce to create something special. Hittman's remarkable direction, for example, opts for a less-is-more approach and limits the number of shots in this scene.

Much of the focus is squarely on an extended take of Autumn just staring just off-screen. Watching this previously withdrawn person become more and more discernably emotional in the span of a single-take hits you like a ton of bricks. Meanwhile, the lack of a score both reinforces how we're supposed to focus just on Autumn and enhances the realism of the sequence. Sidney Flanigan, meanwhile, demonstrates her incredible acting chops with her restrained but emotionally powerful work here. With each question the doctor asks, Flanigan subtly portrays another piece of Autumn's hardened exterior being chipped away. It's one of the most remarkable feats of acting to be found in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, one that poignantly presents a person whose so often silenced finally getting a chance to speak about herself.

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