Maybe you should know that going in. Maybe that’s a deal breaker for you; while there are no overt politics in Eliza Hittman’s film, its subject matter makes it inherently political, albeit it in an intelligent, quietly insistent way.
It’s also really good. You should know that, too. “Never Rarely” (★★★★ out of five; rated PG-13; available Friday as video on demand) is not strident, it doesn’t preach, it doesn’t harangue. Instead it relies on confident direction, brilliant acting and a deceptively straightforward story to make its point.
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Really, you probably haven’t seen anything like it.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan, terrific in her first role) is a 17-year-old girl growing up in a Pennsylvania town. We meet her at a school talent show, where she performs a slow, dirge-like rendition of “He’s Got the Power” by The Exciters. She’s heckled but soldiers on. Boys at a pizza place make fun of her afterward as she dines with her family, which includes a seemingly supportive mom and real creep of a stepfather. It’s all pretty regular stuff, except Hittman is offering small clues along the way to Autumn’s life.
Hittman shoots the film in drab shades of gray — it always looks like it’s cold and about to rain, even indoors. We get the vibe early on that Autumn deserves better than this. The town, and her home, may as well be made of quicksand.
She works at a market with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder). They endure, in silence, the harassing behavior of their boss. It seems like a miserable existence — certainly the look of blank indifference on Autumn’s face makes it look as if she’s just given up, or about to.
She hasn’t. She isn’t. Autumn learns she is pregnant and goes to a clinic, where the older woman working the phones cheerfully offers her a brochure on adoption.
It’s an exceptionally difficult journey, for reasons not typically seen in movies. There’s the expense, which is considerable for them. There’s also the tedium of the long bus ride and the suspect types also on board.
And there are the clerical and legal hoops through which Autumn has to jump, again and again. It’s a two-day procedure, she learns to her dismay. That means spending the night in New York with no place to stay and no way to pay for it. Plus, there’s the matter of bus tickets on the way back. And the guy from the bus ride who keeps showing up.
We’re conditioned to expect certain things from this kind of story, but Hittman trusts her audience enough to upend those expectations and counts on us to stay with her. It’s rewarding all the way around. As filmmakers like Hittman and Kelly Reichardt (“First Cow”)
A case in point: a shattering scene from which the film gets its title — the words are the series of acceptable answers to questions about Autumn’s sexual history. The counselor talking with her is compassionate but firm. She needs answers to proceed. Flanigan’s reactions — so natural, so unaffected, so heartbreakingly real — convey her fears, her disappointments, her difficult life, perfectly. It’s a powerhouse moment.
“Never Rarely” is certainly unconventional, and that’s much to its credit. There’s no judgment here on anyone’s part (with the exception of the woman at the original clinic). This is simply a girl trapped in a situation searching for a way out of it, with limited means at her disposal, stymied by the roadblocks placed in her path but moving forward, bit by bit.
But in her striving, Autumn fits a certain cinematic archetype, as well. That’s what great movie characters do, and in Flanigan’s performance, that’s exactly what Autumn becomes.