NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS. To me, rural Pennsylvania has never seemed especially welcoming, even on its best day. And slushy winter, 17, pregnant and getting catcalled while trying to perform in the high school talent show is nobody's best day. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) may not know she's pregnant when we meet her but she's having a rough enough time regardless. And so begins Eliza Hittman's third feature (it follows 2013's It Felt Like Love and 2017's Beach Rats). Autumn is stuck in a small town, surrounded by odious males, perhaps burdened by artistic ambition with little support for it and in need of reproductive health services.
To backtrack just a bit, I should acknowledge that Never Rarely is not new, at least in the strictest sense. It was one of the first theatrical releases to be punted to streaming in the early days of the pandemic. But as time seems to somehow have stopped altogether while also constantly accelerating, the fact that the movie was released in April seems incidental right now. And with the cancelation of summer, more or less, it seems entirely appropriate for a small, wintry movie about abortion rights for the lower middle class to have displaced whatever fantastical nine-figure drivel I would likely otherwise be writing about.
Hittman makes unadorned, intimate movies about (at least cinematically) generally unexplored aspects of the lives of young people in the greater orbit of New York, particularly their burgeoning sexuality and sense of place in the world. As such, her work both fascinates and terrifies me; city kids are a different breed, with challenges and norms that boggle the mind of a hayseed like myself. And Hittman, with her close-ups and diegetic sound, pushes right in on the visceral realities, provoking and confronting without malice, simply by pointing us toward some fundamental realities. Her first two features are very much summer movies but in the sand-on-the-sunburn, too-hot-to-sleep, why-is-that-girl-in-that-room-with-all-those-guys kind of way. They are suffused with the aimlessness not only of the season, but of adolescence and young adulthood, emanating uncertainty and discomfort like concrete on a 100-degree Brooklyn day. Never Rarely takes a decidedly different tack, both in being set in the cold season and in approaching the city from the perspective of an outsider looking in. It also operates on a more linear, less ambling plotline, with Autumn facing a clearly defined conflict and moving toward an established resolution.
When Autumn begins to suspect that her frequent nausea could be an extra-digestive symptom, she looks for medical advice. Of course, legitimate support of that nature is in disastrously short supply in her small town. She finds herself at a "women's health center," where she is given a grocery store pregnancy test and some deeply dubious counseling, and is subjected to a video about the evils of abortion. Looking further afield, she learns that state law prohibits her from terminating the pregnancy without parental consent. As things with Mom (Sharon Van Etten) are strained, to say the least, maybe due to some unseen malfeasance by the leering Ted (Ryan Eggold), that option is off the table. And, to Autumn, that would seem to be the end of options. Well, other than desperately punching herself in the abdomen and attempting to overdose on vitamin C.
When she gets sick during her shift at the supermarket, though, her cousin and co-worker Skylar (Talia Ryder) notices and comes to her aid. Their disgustingly lecherous manager won't let them leave work early, so they finish the shift and Skylar pilfers part of the day's cash deposit. Still woefully underfunded, they board a bus for Brooklyn and Planned Parenthood. Matters are complicated when Autumn is referred from the Brooklyn clinic to one in Manhattan, and is then informed the procedure will have to take place over the course of two days. Navigating the city with no money and no experience might as well be sailing to another continent for these two. But Skylar, ever resourceful, solicits the aid of a vaguely creepy dude she met on the bus.
It's this turn in particular that feels to me like trademark Hittman. She's a realist and probably a little cynical, but at least in her work she refuses to succumb to pessimism or fatalism, call it what you will. She puts us in the room where, at least if we are of a certain sensibility, we are certain something hideous will transpire. But her protagonists, despite inhabiting an uncaring world of creeps and cretins, are not victims; there is power and agency in their humanity, even if they've been conditioned to disbelieve it. People can show up to support each other and transcend the manufactured realities thrust upon them. While the endings may not always be happy, good things can happen. PG13. 101M. STREAMING ON DEMAND.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.