As a culture, we don’t really respect teenage girls. We don’t respect their interests, we don’t respect their bodies, we don’t respect their inner lives. Mostly we either objectify or dismiss them, but once in a blue moon someone puts them under a steady gaze and we’re reminded how much our apathy filters out.
The latest to do this is writer/director Eliza Hittman, who tells a small story of two teenage girls with depth and grace in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. That’s not to say it’s a cheery movie; the two small-town Pennsylvanians are traveling to New York City for an abortion, a trip they could barely fund even before the bad information they received catches up to them. But the girls stick together, and through this understated relationship Hittman unveils their complex lives.
The film is a two-hander, relying on Sidney Flanigan as Autumn, the pregnant girl, and Talia Ryder as Skylar, her cousin, to carry much of the movie. This is both womens’ first feature, and their inexperience is both a hindrance and a blessing. There’s a flatness to some of their line deliveries that betrays them, and while I assume they were being directed by Hittman to play everything small, they clearly weren’t attuned to what a camera can capture in terms of tiny face and body language changes.
The moments when this gets in the way are few and far between, though, as the choice to go with unrecognizable actresses mostly feeds the sense of reality that Hittman is going for. Too often nowadays that desire translates into a jostling camera or some other ragged, intrusive approach that ends up having the opposite effect. Hittman doesn’t overplay her choices here, be it in casting, character, or plot, and it’s in the minutia Hittman, Flanigan, and Ryder find together that the film unveils a cavernous world.
The summation of the movie can be found in a single scene, one where Autumn is doing a pre-procedure questionnaire with a Planned Parenthood employee. The woman gently leads her through an increasingly personal series of questions, ones that Autumn was not prepared for. Note how Flanigan builds her character’s discomfort. Note how the Planned Parenthood employee responds to this. Note how the camera never looks away. For every painful thing Never Rarely Sometimes Always brings up there’s a counterbalance of solidarity, a network of women who support and show up for each other without the need to explain why. That solidarity is the crux of the film, and the near wordless way Hittman shows it is what makes the film pop.
In case this attention to women makes you think the movie will be anti-men, rest assured that it’s not. Hittman’s previous film, Beach Rats, is as complex an exploration of masculinity among teen boys as this is of femininity among women and girls. Both films are bold and narrow in their approach, and you may dislike them for it, but you can’t deny their care. Hittman, through both of these movies, shows her care and attention for people, and that kind of filmmaker isn’t prone to dismissing an entire group.
Here, that care is mostly focused on the two girls, and it’s through them that Hittman captures the solidarity between women most vividly. We see every small act between them, from knowing glances to some pocketed cash (seriously, this is one of the most loving thefts I’ve seen), and with each of these moments the strength of their relationship is revealed in ways that words never could.
It’s impossible to watch these two navigate this situation and think they are uncomplicated human beings or are in any way unworthy of this attention. As much as some may get distracted by this film’s politics in terms of abortion, the film doesn’t generate a lot of conversation about that. Its point of view on the importance of open access to healthcare for women and girls is so steady that to think of debating it seems ludicrous to me. The more interesting thing that comes of this movie is its upending of our assumptions about teenage girls. Frivolity is nowhere to be found, and neither is objectification or dismissal. Through its attention, we see the very serious things they’re dealing with along with the very serious ways the rest of the world’s inattention affects them. They may be capable young women, but they are not wise beyond their years. This is just what it takes to make it in the world as teenage girls, and it takes a hell of a lot.