It’s not unusual for the Berlinale to include films in its official competition lineup that already premiered at Sundance. However, such films are often programmed more for added red carpet glamour than for merit and can get relegated to the ghettos pretty quickly (cases in point: Gus Van Sant’s DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT, the Zellner brothers’ DAMSEL, both 2018). With Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS, though, I suspect we have a quiet winner in our hands that could defy the Sundance bias come this weekend.
The story is a very simple, straightforward one: teenager Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) finds out she’s pregnant and, based on scenes of aggressive taunts, we sense that the pregnancy is probably not the result of any loving, mature relationship. For a high schooler living in rural Pennsylvania without much of a support system in her life, the prospect of motherhood under these circumstances doesn’t really present itself as a choice unless choice means whether to forget about all her dreams and plans and start living for another human being before turning 20. To bypass the requirement of parental consent in her home state, Autumn decides to travel to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to abort her pregnancy.
Hittman’s screenplay imagines two young girls with no resources on a lonely but vital journey compellingly and compassionately. For such an inherently dramatic subject matter, it opts to remain procedural and coolly observational. There are no lengthy exchanges or elaborate plot devices. In fact, when left on their own, the two protagonists hardly talk to each other at all, a particularly perceptive move that picks up on the non-verbal communication of millennials and underscores the utter unsophistication of the characters. The film aims not to be an intellectual debate on a controversial issue, instead it shows you how, when something happens to you, it ceases to be an “issue” altogether. What’s left is just figuring out how to deal with the crisis and move on. Feelings and beliefs, however cleverly worded, are quite simply beside the point.
This masterfully exact use of language (or the lack thereof) culminates in a scene at the planned parenthood clinic where the title of the film is referenced. Four plain words, spoken repeatedly in the advisor’s kind, firm voice, go on to reveal an entire history of abuse carried around by a proud, frightened girl and it is beyond devastating to watch. As much as any Noah Baumbach screenplay captures emotional truths with thoughtful, minutely sculpted monologues, Hittman’s work here is perhaps even more impressive for its restraint, absolute grasp of authenticity and sheer, heart-wrenching force.
The beautiful writing is brought to life by a pair of fantastic actresses. Playing the supportive quick-witted companion, Ryder is thoroughly believable and successfully channels the viewer’s anxiety and frustration with not being able to help a friend in need. Flanigan’s portrayal of Autumn builds on the placidity and false composure of a strong-willed teenager forced to make life decisions too soon. This façade of serenity only starts to crack during that title scene and the release of emotion feels so raw and genuine it’s hard not to be affected.
Shout-out also to Hélène Louvart, one of the very best DP’s working today (see HAPPY AS LAZZARO, INVISIBLE LIFE and Hittman’s last feature BEACH RATS) . Alone in this year’s Berlinale competition lineup, she’s responsible for the lensing of two titles. Eschewing the pristine digital photography of ALL THE DEAD ONES, she shot NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS on 16mm film and gave it a wonderfully grainy, naturalistic look. For a film that relies so heavily on emotional honesty, the palpable texture of the imagery for sure adds another invaluable layer to the storytelling.
Speaking of truthful portrayals of the American every(wo)man, German-born writer/director Bastian Günther’s ONE OF THESE DAYS is a gem from the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar. The Texas-set drama centers around an endurance competition hosted by a car dealership as a promotional stunt, where the last contestant to give up having both of their hands on a truck can take it home. It’s a silly game that demands the humanly impossible of its players and, in the process, reveals a lot about the American culture.
The script is smart, engrossing and surprisingly layered. The stakes of the so-called “hands-on” competition seem low at first but continue to grow as the physical and psychological exhaustion of the contestants kicks in. Through carefully interwoven back stories of the characters, we get to know what drives someone to torture themselves in this way just for the promise of a truck. And what it says about poverty, modern-day masculinity and good ol’ capitalistic need to win astounds. For my taste the gripping, adrenaline-charged movie could have wrapped things up 15 minutes and two endings earlier, but as it is, the overall storytelling finesse and humanistic insights of the film are still undeniable. Joe Cole as the young, overburdened family father and Carrie Preston as the big-hearted competition hostess both delivered strong, vividly memorable performances.
As this year’s Berlinale enters the home stretch, most of the competition films have now screened for press. This time around, opinions seem even more scattered than usual. So far only FIRST COW and NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS (incidentally both pre-Berlinale premieres by female filmmakers) seem to be able to claim any level of general support. Other better-reviewed titles like UNDINE, ALL THE DEAD ONES or Korean auteur Hong Sang Soo’s THE WOMAN WHO RAN all have detractors. And then there are the WTF-titles that are destined for masterpiece-or-garbage debates like habitual provocateur Abel Ferrara’s Willem Dafoe-starrer SIBERIA and the truly mind-boggling Russian absurdist experiment DAU. NATASHA. It should be interesting to see how the race shakes out in a few days’ time.