DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The writer-director Eliza Hittman has made two acclaimed coming-of-age dramas, "It Felt Like Love" and "Beach Rats." Her new movie is called "Never Rarely Sometimes Always," and it follows a teenage girl from a small town in Pennsylvania who decides to have an abortion. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I'm reluctant to explain why Eliza Hittman's new movie is called "Never Rarely Sometimes Always." It's a mouthful to be sure. Few people I talked to at this year's Sundance Film Festival could remember it correctly. But then we saw the movie, and after that, a lot of us knew the title would stay with us forever. Let's just say that the words never, rarely, sometimes, always refer to four possible answers on a multiple-choice questionnaire.
The title is meant to sound a little nondescript, and you might say something similar about the movie's teenage protagonist, Autumn, who's played by a remarkable first-time actress named Sidney Flanigan. Autumn seems at first like a conventionally moody 17-year-old living in a small Pennsylvania town. She goes to school and likes to sing and play the guitar. She has a kind mom and a surly stepdad, neither of whom pay her much attention. Her closest and maybe only friend is her cousin Skylar, played by Talia Ryder. They both work part-time at a grocery store, and one night after their shift, Skylar asks Autumn how she's doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS")
TALIA RYDER: (As Skylar) I saw you weren't at school today.
SIDNEY FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) I went to the doctor.
T RYDER: (As Skylar) What's wrong?
FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) Girl problems.
T RYDER: (As Skylar) Bad cramps?
FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) Yeah.
T RYDER: (As Skylar) I get those, too - pretty much run through a bottle of painkillers, like, every month.
FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) Yeah, same.
T RYDER: (As Skylar) Don't you ever just wish you were a dude?
FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) All the time.
CHANG: Autumn and Skylar are both pretty taciturn by nature, but they have an almost subliminal ability to communicate with each other. Eventually, Autumn tells her cousin the whole truth. She's pregnant and planning to have an abortion. She doesn't want to tell her parents, and because, as a minor, she falls under Pennsylvania's parental consent laws, she plans to have the abortion in New York City. Skylar, of course, decides to go with her, and so they stuff their pockets with cash, cook up an excuse for their families and hop on the next bus to New York. But navigating the confusion of one of the world's biggest cities and the American health care system turns out to be more complicated and time-consuming than either of them had imagined. With barely enough money for food, let alone a hotel room, the girls spend a lot of their time waiting around the Port Authority bus terminal. After a while, the place starts to feel like purgatory, where they are forever doomed to drag their hugely impractical brown suitcase up and down stairs and through turnstiles.
A Sundance jury awarded "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" a prize for neorealism, an odd citation that nonetheless captures something of the film's distinctly European art house flavor. It's there in the spareness of Hittman's dialogue, the fluidity of the handheld camera work by the French cinematographer Helene Louvart and the obvious amount of research that went into the scenes at Planned Parenthood, all of which feel rigorously naturalistic. More than once, I was reminded of the great 2007 film "4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days" about a teenager helping her best friend obtaining a legal abortion in communist Romania. Although "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" is nowhere near that bleak, it's the most pointed and confrontational American drama about abortion rights that I've seen in recent memory, and it seems timely with a major case on the subject before the now-conservative-dominated Supreme Court.
But while Hittman's position couldn't be clearer, there is no grandstanding in her approach. She simply paints a matter-of-fact a portrait of two young women in a difficult but all too believable situation in which there are no easy answers. She's also making a crucial point about the casual misogyny and sexually aggressive behavior that women experience on a regular basis. Throughout the film, Autumn and Skylar find themselves on the receiving end of persistent and unwanted male attention, whether it's from their touchy-feely boss, the creep on the subway or even the kind of charming young guy who chats up Skylar on the bus. These encounters build to an emotionally shattering scene in which Autumn has to tell a counselor at the clinic about the circumstances of her pregnancy. As good as she is at hiding her emotions, she simply can't hide them any longer.
Autumn doesn't spell out her entire backstory, and she doesn't have to. Flanigan's performance reminds us that restraint can be revelatory. I've rarely seen an actress take so many mumbled one-word responses and play them with such feeling. Some of the most moving moments are those in which she and Skylar simply clasp hands, sustaining each other through the toughest ordeal of their young lives.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times.
On Monday's show, Terry talks with actress Octavia Spencer. She won an Oscar for her first big film role in "The Help" playing a maid in Mississippi in 1963, and she was nominated for Oscars for her roles in "Hidden Figures" and "The Shape Of Water." Spencer is the executive producer and star of the new Netflix series "Self Made" about America's first female self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "FIRST GYMNOPEDIE")
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "FIRST GYMNOPEDIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.