Eliza Hittman’s newest film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, garnered a lot of praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Because of that praise, anticipation grew ahead of the film’s scheduled March 13th release date. Unfortunately, the film’s run in theaters was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on cinemas around the world. As of today however, Focus Features has made this film available to stream on VOD. After finally being able to view it for myself, I can say that this film is truly one of the best of the year so far, and people should see it.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells a bleak and deeply intimate story of two teenagers traveling, on their own, from rural Pennsylvania to New York City in order for one of the girls to terminate her unplanned pregnancy. It is a quiet, but powerful, film that draws out great amounts of empathy and emotion from its viewer. The plot synopsis may make the viewing experience of this film seem overwhelming, but what I appreciated most about it was how subtly Hittman was able to tell this story. In many ways, this film is quite simply just a collection of quiet and naturalistic moments. But, Hittman does a great job of illustrating how those small moments ultimately make up this much larger, and wildly affecting, journey that is being taken by the main characters. There is no denying the weight that a film centered on abortion holds in the year 2020. However, by focusing on the emotional journey of the characters, Hittman is able to make this so much more than just an issue-driven movie that beats you over the head with a particular message. Her brutally accurate portrait of a melancholy, unsure, and lost teenager turns this film into nothing more than a human story, even though the subject matter does loom large throughout, and rightfully so.
This film is largely driven by its tone and mood. There is a desolate feeling to many of the scenes, which emphasizes how the main character, Autumn, feels during her journey. Also, the real-time approach to the storytelling, as well as the utilization of a handheld camera and plethora of close-up shots, gives this film an immensely intimate feeling, which I think it needed in order to ultimately be as effective as it is. The audience feels every single emotion that is felt by Autumn throughout her journey. This is in large part due to the transcendent performance of Sidney Flanigan, who plays the lead role, but it is also a product of the choices made by Hittman as both the writer and director. Her ability to capture every feeling that is being experienced by Autumn is incredibly impressive. Furthermore, as a writer, Hittman wrote a script without much dialogue, which gives the film a lifelike feel to it. Although there are certainly scenes involving dialogue that are extremely powerful and moving (I am specifically thinking of the titular scene), this film really comes alive in its most quiet moments. Because of the limited amount of dialogue, realistic characters, and intimate filmmaking style, this film has a sort-of documentary feel to it during many of its scenes. I found this to be effective because it made these characters, their emotions, and their journey even more accessible to me as a viewer.
I cannot continue to write about this film any longer without mentioning its brilliant performances. As previously stated, Sidney Flanigan plays the lead character, Autumn, and Talia Ryder plays her cousin, and companion on her journey, Skylar. I was surprised to learn that this was the first appearance in a film for both of these women because the performances they gave felt very advanced. There is a comfortable feel to both of their performances that is rare to see among first-time actors. Obviously, I do not mean that the nature of the story feels comforting, but both Flanigan and Ryder feel incredibly comfortable, and in control of their characters, in a way that comes across on screen. Both of their performances felt shockingly natural, which helped create the intimate and personal tone the film possesses. Also, although at times this film can feel overwhelmingly sad and lonely, there is an underlaying feeling of friendship and warmth between these two characters that manages to shine through, because of the impressive lead performances. I want to single out Flanigan though because the film really rests upon her shoulders in a lot of ways. Her ability to convey emotions without using any dialogue was one of the best aspects of her performance, and crucial to the film considering how many close-up shots there were of just her face. This film simply wouldn’t be as successful with a less talented or less believable actress in the main role. It is safe to say that Flanigan’s performance is the most moving I have seen so far in 2020, and it is that performance that elevates this film to the next level.
Obviously, I cannot finish a proper review of this film without touching on the way in which I viewed it. Like I pointed out in the intro, movie theaters across the country are currently closed, rightfully so, because of the state of the world right now. While this is incredibly unfortunate for film fans, like myself, who believe that the theater experience is the premier way to view a film, it has encouraged movie studios to begin to release their films on VOD earlier than planned, in order to make them accessible to the public. I have many mixed feelings on what this may mean for the film industry going forward, which I will leave for a different blog entirely. But, I do remain hopeful to the idea that a smaller film like Never Rarely Sometimes Always being given a VOD release at this time may ultimately result in more people seeing it. Even though I, of course, wish I could have seen this film in a theater, I am grateful for the fact that I was even able to see it at all during this very weird time in our country/world—and hope that the positive word-of-mouth around it encourages others to watch it as well.
Rating: 4.25 out of 5