Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Written by Jonathan Mahon-Heap

The Eliza Hittman drama is the must-see post lockdown film.

Eliza Hittman tells stories of the New America; clear-eyed portraits of dim futures amid post-industrial landscapes, youth culture fighting against the cruel codes that dictate it. Her sophomore feature, Beach Rats, featured a star-making turn from Harris Dickinson, deconstructing Brooklyn machismo with tenderness. This week heralds the New Zealand debut of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which won the Golden Bear at 2019’s Berlin Film Festival, and has been in the works by Hittman for eight years. 

It centers on the fraught journey of Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) from the dismal lots of post-industrial Pennsylvania to New York City, faced with an unintended pregnancy, and with her cousin Skylar in tow. Hailed a masterpiece and ‘near perfect’ by critics (at present on 99 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes), it cements Hittman’s status as one of America’s leading auteurs. 

Eliza Hittman film’s fuse political and personal worlds with zero trace of high-mindedness or exploitation. Her cinema vérité does not wallow in the vérité part, nor veer into a documentary-like comment. She traces the interpersonal relationships of those struggling in their setting. Seeing contemporary America in this way feels like something new; its naturalism feels indebted to the New Wave of Romanian cinema (notably, the Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, that tackled similar subject matter), or the Dardenne Brothers. 

Yet, sadly, this is America, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always shows how the spectre of trauma engenders the onset of Autumn’s horrible wisdom about the world, its cruel complexities, and its unflinching rectitude. Hittman shows the scant resources offered to everyday Americans — and the physical and emotional toll required to surmount the system. 

Autumn’s grim quest is not just a bureaucratic nightmare; it’s a deeply physical and personal one, untethered to the malfunctioning framework that is supposed to hold her up (her listless father, the slur-hurtling boys of her high school). That said, Never Rarely Sometimes Always never dials up the dismal elements for drama. Instead, the gentle humanism of the film offers us a lens onto contemporary America, daring us to stare within. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always will be playing in selected cinemas nationwide under Level 2. 

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