Sundance 2020: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always

Before I saw Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always at Sundance, a critic friend said it’s the kind of film that gets to European film festivals.

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At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was praise or condemnation. After seeing it myself, I have nothing but praise for Eliza Hittman, the film’s writer-director. I left the cinema hall sober, contemplating how this story of two young girls had such power.

The two young girls, Auntumn and Skylar, are cashiers at a store in a small town in Pennsylvania. One learns that she is pregnant, a detail deftly hinted at by the marks her bra strap cave into the flesh of her shoulders. Back home, are folks can’t understand her; she doesn’t seem to like them either. In some ways, her work is her refuge. At least there she has her cousin Skylar. Both girls have one of those relationships that don’t seem to need a lot of conversation to thrive.

When Autumn tells Skylar her about the pregnancy, the latter steals some money and stuffs it in Autumn’s hands. They leave the town and find themselves in New York. There are several opportunities at a moment like this: the film could become a thriller or an adventure tale. Instead it becomes what feels like a domestic drama, only that it takes place outdoors. The most affecting moments are conveyed with the least amount of physical action, in a way that mirrors the relative torpor of the central character.

In one scene, Skylar allows herself be wooed and made out with by a boy she doesn’t exactly like. As the pair kisses by a pillar, Autumn walks up to them and wordlessly holds her cousin’s palms. They never discuss what has happened, but in that action there is a tacit acknowledgement of what one girl has sacrificed for the other.

As Autumn and Skylar, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are revelatory. And yet, it is Hittman who should emerge the most rewarded by this quiet showcase of love between girls. Her film is in competition at the Berlin Film Festival. That, I believe, is praise for Hittman’s work.

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