Thursday 13 April 2023

On demand: "Never Rarely Sometimes Always"

The American writer-director Eliza Hittman filmed
Never Rarely Sometimes Always just as the freedoms enshrined in law by the Roe vs. Wade verdict were coming under renewed attack from the dingbat ultras of the Republican Party. After earning praise on the festival circuit in early 2020, the finished feature was shuttled to streaming as the world went into lockdown, and subsequently rather lost to the algorithms, months before Roe vs. Wade was overturned by a Supreme Court stocked irresponsibly deep by the Trump administration. Gut punch though that was, the real world had merely underlined the points Hittman makes here: that the freedoms we cling to and celebrate are tentative at best, largely region-specific and forever subject to renegotiation, and that pregnant women have almost always found themselves up against enemies both within and without. Taking its title from a medical form used to codify female behaviour, NRSA achieves all this not by grandstanding, but from paying close attention to a simple narrative: that of Everyteen Autumn (Sidney Flanagan), forced by unhappy gynaecological circumstance to leave behind coldly, forbiddingly conservative Pennsylvania, where juniors still require permission from their keepers to have an abortion. Like countless wide-eyed dreamers before her, Sidney sets out for New York, only Hittman is keen to show that (even before Roe vs. Wade was struck off the statute books) travelling out of state for a medical procedure isn't as easy as you might have thought, nor as it perhaps should be. In its low-key, unshowy manner, the film comes to describe a fraught, exhausting and painful quest, one that involves stealing away with money - this being the American healthcare system - and keeping one eye over your shoulder. In the eyes of Pennsylvanian law, Sidney is effectively a criminal, forced to adopt the fugitive status of one with no fixed abode, and with each scene Hittman shows us the weight of the world bearing down on this girl's shoulders and belly. It seems a terrible burden to impose on one so young.

The foremost achievement of Hittman's film is that we start to feel some of that weight for ourselves; the writing and direction attain a rare psychological depth. Practically the first action Sidney takes upon returning a positive pregnancy test is calmly, methodically using a safety pin to poke a hole through her nostril: anything, we gather, to regain some measure of control over a body swelling up with uncertainty. Here as elsewhere, NRSA deploys the big, expressive close-ups that have been a staple of this director's work to date, but now they're newly urgent and piercing, seeking out signs of our heroine's scared, confused, resilient inner life, the doubts and fears mixed up with the hormones and zygotes. (It's camera as ultrasound; direction as radiology.) Hittman hardly makes her own task easy, because Sidney is almost perpetually in motion, forever being referred or redirected, moved on or bounced, and obliged to carry her baggage (lit. and fig.) around with her wherever she goes. You begin to long for her to be able just to sit down and put her feet up on a sofa, if not in the stirrups. Some of that exhaustion comes out in the film's generally exasperated and unflattering portrait of the men in Sidney's world: the errant lover (never seen, barely afforded a moment's thought), her mom's insensitive asshole of a partner, the contemporaries casually sniping at her, the creeps at her workplace and in the bowels of the New York subway. This was plainly a film written in anger - understandable anger, given that it's men who've done so much to tear down this protective legislation - but it does mean NRSA sometimes strays from the considered equanimity of Hittman's earlier work; every so often, you catch it labouring to point out that this girl has problems enough without the men in her life being such dicks. The gaze is steadier and more persuasive whenever it returns to the ordinary bravery of its heroine, thereby distancing itself from the catastrophising cosplay of TV's The Handmaid's Tale. Hittman knows there is power and editorial value in showing this process simply as it is - or as it was, before this world got rougher and tougher still for the Sidneys of America.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to rent via Prime Video and YouTube. 

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