Writer-Director Eliza Hittman has made two fantastic coming-of-age New York stories so far – It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats – both of which prove her talent for finding young, inexperienced actors and taking a chance on them. It Felt Like Love’s Gina Piersanti and Beach Rats’ Harris Dickinson both give raw, naturalistic performances which seem improvisational, but this is testament to the way Hittman works with her actors. For her third film in this unofficial trilogy, Hittman has once again teamed up with her Beach Rats cinematographer Helene Louvart (who recently shot Italy’s Happy as Lazzaro and Brazil’s Invisible Life). Hittman has once again found a talented young actor (who can also sing this time) to centre a story around – this time it is Sidney Flanigan. Instead of setting her latest film IN New York, however, the story starts in rural Pennsylvania and then travels to the big city. This is Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
All three of Hittman’s features so far have revolved around teenage protagonists and have not shied away from the difficult and frequently grubby and bleak nature of teenage sexuality, without being in any way judgmental. It Felt Like Love featured a teenage girl who was desperately trying to feel grown up, through drinking, doing drugs and having sex. Beach Rats featured a teenage boy trying to have a girlfriend whilst pursuing covert sex with men late at night. Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t focus as much on the sex itself, but more on the consequences. Seventeen year old Autumn realises she is pregnant and without telling her mother or anyone else, approaches a Family Planning clinic for an abortion. It turns out that she can’t have one without parental consent in the state she’s in, so she tells her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) and together they travel to New York City, where Autumn can get the treatment she needs.
The film is unflinching and relentless in its depiction of the reality of being a teenage girl and the daily microaggressions they face from boys and men of all ages. Hittman is not just making points about the bureaucracy of abortion, but about the constant predatory and transactional nature of nearly all interactions between young attractive girls and the men they encounter. The film opens with Autumn giving a solo acoustic performance at her school show, where she bravely sings one of her own compositions. She is heckled by one of her male classmates. It is hinted that the person who is presumably her step-father (she has a much younger sister) has a strange and possibly inappropriate relationship with Autumn and this could be the reason why she is so reluctant to tell her mother about the fact she’s pregnant. Autumn and Skylar work at a supermarket and their boss is supremely creepy. They accept that part of the conditions of the job is having their hands stroked when they hand over the contents of their cash registers at the end of each day. The detailing of these types of incidents will ring extremely true to any woman who had a part-time job as a teenager.
Louvart’s intimate 16mm camera follows the girls, mostly in close-up, as they venture on a greyhound bus to New York. An authentically teenage touch is that Skylar packs a suitcase (like a kid running away from home), which they then have to wheel around the city with them, despite having nowhere to stay. Again, they are approached by an older man on the bus who wants them to come to a show with him. They meet up with him later in the city and this seemingly nice guy of course wants something in return for his help. The central scene of the film is where the title Never Rarely Sometimes Always comes from. At the clinic in New York, a counsellor takes Autumn through a questionnaire, asking her about her sexual experiences and whether she’s even been coerced into doing things she didn’t want to do. Flanigan’s performance is incredible here, as Louvart’s unwavering camera remains tight on her. Autumn is frequently trapped by the situations she is in and Louvart’s shooting style emphasises this. This scene is difficult to watch and was the point where sobs could be heard throughout the audience.
One heart-breaking detail is that Autumn has no one she knows with her when she finally does manage to have the abortion. The counsellor she has just met offers to be with her and holds her hand during the procedure. This is echoed later when Skylar does something that she doesn’t particularly want to, in order to make enough money for the bus ticket home. Autumn secretly holds her hand during the act, hidden behind a concrete pylon. The support of girls and women is highlighted just as much as the relentlessly crappy and creepy behaviour of boys and men. The entire process of Autumn finally managing to procure the abortion is shown in painstaking detail but this is a vital insight into an invasive ordeal, in more ways than one. Of course the insanity of the US healthcare system is revealed through such facts as Autumn not being able to use her parents’ insurance to pay for the abortion (because then they will know about it).
Hittman is one of the foremost writer-directors of the coming-of-age experience and she never shies away from the harsh realities of being a teenager, especially when it comes to sex. The performances she draws out of her young cast members are extraordinary and a director’s ability to create the conditions on set to allow inexperienced actors to have such raw vulnerability is frequently underrated. Flanigan and Ryder are huge talents, who should go onto promising acting careers if they choose to. Hittman’s collaboration with the cinematographer Helene Louvart, a master of her craft, has again produced her signature intimate, hand-held style which draws us into the lives of the characters. An important film which left many audience members shaken with its urgent and vital message.