Friday, January 1, 2021

2020 Top Ten List #5 Never Rarely Sometimes Always





Director Eliza Hittman




Eliza Hittman on the set







NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS          B+                  
USA  Great Britain  (101 mi)  2020  d:  Eliza Hittman          Official site

He makes me do things I don’t want to do
He makes me say things I don’t want to say
& even though I want to break away
I can’t (stop saying I adore him
I can’t stop doing things for him)
He’s got the power, the power of love over me

—“He’s Got the Power,” by the Exciters, 1963, The Exciters - He's Got The Power (Stereo) - YouTube (2:21)

An intensely personal film, much more mature than her earlier works, revealing a greater depth of character, winner of a Special Jury Award at Sundance for Neo-Realism, interestingly listing filmmaker Barry Jenkins as one of the executive producers, beautifully shot by Hélène Louvart on 16mm, providing a moody and impressionistic landscape of both interior and exterior worlds, including an equally intriguing electronic musical score by Julia Holter that adds a poetic lyricism, with piano music of Robert Schumann thrown in, all centered around the experiences of a young 17-year old girl, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), accentuating naturalism through a continual choreography of close-ups on her face, living in a tough, rural community of Northumberland, Pennsylvania where options are few and far between, calling into question the choices young girls face in today’s world, revealing an incessant war of degradation against women and girls in communities like this.  While ostensibly about the erosion of reproductive rights, where young women from rural areas have to travel great distances to obtain an abortion, modeled after Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman living in Ireland who died in 2012 of blood poisoning in a hospital in Galway after being refused a life-saving abortion, which ended up changing the abortion laws in Ireland.  Society’s aversion to legal abortion is portrayed in a starkly realistic light, kind of America’s version of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile) (2007), which is about obtaining an “illegal” abortion, yet the film also unravels layers of ominous warning signs that young girls must learn to navigate at an early age, revealed at the outset in 50’s and 60’s style dance and musical performances from a high school talent show when Autumn is openly slut-shamed, with some guy yelling out “Slut!” in the middle of her daringly different contemporary solo performance of The Exciters “He’s Got the Power,” turning otherwise innocent lyrics into a cautionary tale, clearly indicating an abuse syndrome where men continually wield a stranglehold over women, impinging on their right to choose.  At dinner with her family afterwards, receiving congratulations from her mother (singer Sharon Van Etten) and younger sisters, her stepfather (Ryan Eggold) is openly derisive, literally mocking the idea of offering praise, where it’s clear right from the outset that there are red flag warning signs being exhibited, with fear emanating from his brazen hostility, yet this is an aspect the film doesn’t explore.  Instead it deals with the consequences.  Understated to the core, from the maker of It Felt Like Love (2013) and Beach Rats (2017), this director has a history of exploring young girls in uncomfortable situations, accentuating youthful sexual desires gone awry and the internalized wasteland it can lead to, creating portraits of identity confusion filled with psychological ambiguities, with characters alienated from themselves and others, yet clamoring for love and attention, which they don’t know how to get at their tender young ages, instead pretending to be aloof and disaffected.  This film feels like a logical extension of her earlier work, unvarnished, balancing fear and hope, infused with tension, offering inordinate intimacy, filled with moments of horror, dread, and personal resolve, ultimately becoming a story of resistance. 

Autumn works as a cashier at a local supermarket along with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), both the same age, best friends who look after each other, both sensing early on that it’s just easier being a guy, fewer hassles to deal with, yet one of the creepiest aspects of their job is handing in the money envelopes at the end of their shifts to the store manager, handed through a small window, where he grabs and kisses their hands, oppressive circumstances they are forced to endure as a routine aspect of working there, living in an economically bleak and depressing town with no prospects of a better future.  When Autumn misses a day for medical reasons, Skylar questions what’s the matter, answered by a retching in the employee rest room, having visited a local women’s health center and discovering she’s pregnant, shown a hideous anti-abortion video, expressing little interest.  Her initial answer to that was to bloodily self-inflict a nose-ring piercing, reasserting command over her own body (though in a movie goof, the ring appears later in a different nostril).  She and her cousin brace for what’s next, exploring options through the Internet, discovering minors in her state require parental consent, which for her is not an option, attempting unsuccessfully to self-abort, leaving bruises on her stomach, eventually deciding to travel to New York City for the nearest Planned Parenthood facility.  Skylar steals some cash from the grocery till for their journey, packs a suitcase, and the two sneak out together at the crack of dawn hopping on a bus, immediately encountering a talkative young man their age who takes an interest, Jasper, played by Théodore Pellerin, last seen in an electrifying, over-the-edge performance in the Sophie Dupuis dysfunctional family drama Family First (Chien de Garde) (2018), offering one of the most riveting performances of the year.  While Jasper is a stranger, he’s also perfectly friendly, perhaps overly friendly masking unseen intentions, where it’s important to note their mindset, which is to view him as a potential threat, remaining guarded throughout, lying if necessary to keep him off track, never revealing their real intentions.  Their arrival to New York is like entering foreign territory, as they’re completely unfamiliar with how to get around, having only an address written on a piece of paper, but end up spending plenty of time on subways, more than they wish, as things don’t go exactly as planned.  The initial medical assessment reveals she’s farther along in her pregnancy than she thought, already in the second trimester, so they can’t assist her, requiring a referral to a different Planned Parenthood location, stunned to realize it’s a two-day procedure.  Having no place to stay overnight, they’re shooed out of the bus station between 1 am and 5:30 am, spending most of the night riding the subway, but late night sex perverts send them running off again in a hurry, offering a subterranean feel of late night haunts where “You’re forced to interact with people who are just nothing like you,” including night owls in arcades or bars spilling out onto the street, discovering an indifferent city that never sleeps, allowing them no safe refuge. 

Their early morning arrival to the new facility is laced in an eerie Surrealistic atmosphere, as the streets are lined by pro-life supporters chanting slogans and singing songs, carrying crucifixes, feeling like a tent revival meeting, where the sight is something to behold.  Inside is another story, as the center is staffed by medical professionals who exhibit extreme care when interviewing each patient, asking personal questions that they’ve likely never been asked before, revealing heartbreaking silences that inadvertently reveal the answers.  This kind of gut-wrenching realism is rare in today’s cinema, as it places viewers in someone else’s shoes, forcing us to empathize with their circumstance and feel their fears.  The intense isolation is only magnified, as she’s there alone, having no one else to turn to, perhaps more vulnerable than at any other moment of her life, where there is no mention of the father.  The fact that he is nowhere in the picture takes us back to that earlier family dysfunction, where the likely culprit is the stepfather, causing viewers to only shudder with horror.  She really has no other options, where this is uniquely a woman’s story, facing depths of emotion that no men ever have to experience, adding feminist repurcussions that only magnify the situation, having to confront the inner demons without ever uttering a word about it, yet showing the various stages of minutiae in meticulous detail.  A social worker (Kelly Chapman, an actual counselor) gently guides her through the process, filmed in one continuous shot, the camera holding on Autumn’s face, as only then does the title reveal its significance, Never Rarely Sometimes Always - Clinic Scene YouTube (4:39), where the untold power of these moments is excruciating, acknowledging, much like the opening scene, the unspeakable power a man can hold over a woman, violating her in the worst way, yet she holds her ground, refusing to be demoralized or defeated.  The support system at the clinic is all she’s got, as otherwise she goes through this ordeal alone, spending every last dime on the procedure, having to maintain her resolve through yet another weary night.  Inexplicably, they rely upon Jasper again (who else do they know?), where he’s eager for something to happen, inviting them to go bowling, where he and Skylar have a connection over beer before singing karaoke, with Autumn breaking out into a downbeat version of Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying - Gerry and The ... YouTube (2:34).  As the evening progresses, Autumn is left alone while Skylar embarks upon what she has to do to get money home, yet there are wonderful unspoken moments that exist between the two women that are unforgettable expressions of unconditional love.  The fragility expressed onscreen is indescribable, accentuated by an underlying musical mosaic that exudes a haunting tenderness.  By the time the ordeal is over, it’s as if these are two different women, having endured so much pain together, yet having survived, adapting to unforeseen circumstances and prevailing, yet dreading the chilly future that surely awaits them both.  In something of a surprise, the song over the final credits is actually sung by the actress playing the mother, Sharon Van Etten, 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' (2020)-Soundtrack:"Staring at a Mountain" by Sharon Van Etten/Lyrics YouTube (4:03), sounding like something out of Jonathan Caouette’s laceratingly personal film Tarnation (2003).

by writer/director Eliza Hittman

On behalf of Focus Features and the cast and crew of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I would like to thank Charles S. Cohen and the entire staff of Landmark Theatres for exhibiting the film; I applaud your bravery for helping us get this film seen, particularly in places in the U.S. where reproductive rights are under threat. The spark for my new film came in 2012, when a woman named Savita Halappanavar died of blood poisoning in a hospital in Galway after being refused a life-saving abortion. Out of devastation, I naively began to research the history of abortion rights in Ireland. In a country where abortion was criminalized, I became fascinated to learn that women who needed abortions were forced to travel from Ireland to England.

I began to read more and more about Ireland’s hidden diaspora and saw a compelling untold narrative about ‘women on the run’ traveling with the unbearable burden of shame. These migratory abortion trails also exist within our own country from rural areas with limited and restrictive access, past state lines and into progressive cities. Through extensive research and interviews over several years I developed this script. After premiering Beach Rats at Sundance in 2017 and following the inauguration of Trump, I felt an urgent need to make this film now. The fate of a woman’s fundamental right to access is at risk. If Roe v. Wade is attacked and abortion made illegal nationwide, how far will we have to travel?

Savita Halappanavar’s death revolutionized Ireland. It unified feminist groups throughout the country and galvanized a movement to reverse the cruel Eighth Amendment that recognizes the life of a mother and a fetus as being equal. They were activated because her identity was not anonymous. She had a name, a face, a warm smile that the country could feel and mourn. The abortion ban was historically repealed last May.

Amidst such a fraught moment in U.S. history, it’s hard not to ask myself how I am doing in my artistic practice can create change. Women’s issues are global issues. By taking a social and political issue and demonstrating its impact on one individual or character, my goal is to find ways to get past our audiences’ defenses against this stigmatized subject and open people up to confronting difficult realities.

As an extension of my body of work, the film balances realism and lyricism, beauty and horror, fear and hope. It is infused with intimacy, discomfort, tension and truth. It will ignite controversy and conversation. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is ultimately a story about resistance and will perhaps even inspire change.

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