Never Rarely Sometimes Always

 

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A film of rare perfection adds to the standing of writer-director Eliza Hittman.

 
Never Rarely Sometimes Always

  

Beach Rats was the film which in 2017 introduced British audiences to the work of writer/director Eliza Hittman since her first feature, 2013's It Felt Like Love, was never released in the UK. Although I had some reservations about the plotting in the last third of Beach Rats, that film immediately revealed that Hittman was highly skilled and now with this third feature she achieves even more. This may be a small, intimate work but it is also a masterpiece and one of the best films of 2020.

 

Hittman is now in her forties but has an obvious rapport with the younger generation and Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a beautifully realised study that has two young females at its centre. Newcomer Sidney Flanigan is breathtakingly good as Autumn, a 17-year-old living in Pennsylvania who finds herself pregnant. Talia Ryder plays Autumn's cousin, Skylar, who accompanies her to New York to obtain an abortion (Autumn has quickly decided against having the baby and enquiries in Pennsylvania have confirmed that an abortion there at her age would require parental approval and consequently a disclosure that she does not want to make).

 

Some audiences seem to have taken against this film, but that may be because they were hoping for a movie that would take a stand against abortions. What Hittman gives us instead is a study of a girl seeking an abortion which, without arguing the issue one way or the other, invites the viewer to understand fully what it is like to be in Autumn's situation. We may conclude that Hittman favours freedom of choice, but her film is never doctrinaire and does indeed include a scene of some impact featuring a friendly medical adviser who feels that choosing abortion is a bad decision. There is, however, a second reason why some viewers might not take to the film and that is its refusal to develop a full-scale plot as such. The film takes place over a few days rather than over an hour or two but, in portraying what Autumn is facing, it reminded me of the Agnès Varda classic Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) which similarly shared with its audience a moment of crisis in a woman's life. 

 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always finds Hittman bringing a splendid sense of authenticity to her narrative. The bustle of New York is admirably caught in contrast to the early scenes in Pennsylvania and the avoidance of melodrama and anything that smacks of fiction gives the film an almost documentary air at times. Indeed, it was no surprise to discover after watching it that Kelly Chapman, who shares the film's most memorable scene with Flanigan, is not an actress at all but somebody who works as a counsellor in real life. It is at this point that the film's title comes into its own. At first it does not strike one as being a good title because it is not easily remembered. However, it pays off and brings real power to this particular episode which finds Autumn seeking help in New York and being questioned sympathetically about her sexual history. Each question is asked on the understanding that the answers can be any of the words included in the title. The repetition of the phrase is a perfect way in which to give this sequence unusual dramatic strength while yet maintaining the documentary tone. Furthermore, the answers - be they ready ones, slow to emerge or even side-stepped - encourage the viewer to piece together for themselves the likely nature of the relationship that led to Autumn's pregnancy but about which she is reticent.

 

On top of all this, there is another crucial element that makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always a rich experience and that is the way in which the friendship between the two cousins is portrayed (Flanigan may be the real star of the piece but Talia Ryder's performance as Skylar is spot-on too). Rarely has a film been so adept at showing so authentically and without sentimentality a bond between two females that is as close as theirs. But, if the rapport between Autumn and Skylar is at the heart of the film, what is no less crucial to the effectiveness of Never Rarely Sometimes Always is another rapport, the one that exists between Eliza Hittman herself and the two central characters whose lives we share for a while. It's a wonderful film.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten, Drew Seltzer, Kelly Chapman, Carolina Espiro, Lizbeth MacKay, Mia Dillon.

 

Dir Eliza Hittman, Pro Adele Romanski and Sara Murphy, Screenplay Eliza Hittman, Ph Hélène Louvart, Pro Des Meredith Lippincott, Ed Scott Cummings, Music Julia Holter, Costumes Olga Mill.

 

Focus Features/BBC Films/PASTEL/Rooftop Films/Cinereach-Universal Pictures.
101 mins. USA/UK. 2020. Rel: 13 May 2020. Cert. 15.