Sneaking off to the big city is a teenage rite of passage -- my best friend and I did it, roaming the dark streets of our nearest urban center, prowling for who knows what; we were too simple to ask. We went, we wandered, we left, with no stories to tell. The alleyways felt like half-blackened lunar surfaces, their secrets and crevasses left undiscovered, doused in shadow for another time, another turn. Just seeing them felt enough then.
The trip taken from rural Pennsylvania to New York City by the seventeen-year-old cousins Skylar (Talia Ryder) and Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) in Beach Rats director Eliza Hittman's brutally beautiful new film Never Rarely Sometimes Always is absent my privileged aimlessness -- Autumn has purpose. After several bouts of throwing up during her shitty day job's back-stall bathroom she has discovered she's pregnant, and due to her hometown's draconian abortion measures the only way she can take charge of the life she's got ahead is by hopping a bus to the Big Apple. What she would give for my wandering, my thoughtlessness -- her every movement is weighted with wrong turns and dark paths ahead.
Hittman and Flanigan especially (who's an absolute marvel) show us that the whip-smart and emotionally bare Autumn is more than aware of her situation and the dangers she's facing -- the film follows her so close you can feel the fabric of her hoody rough on your skin, her bad breath after two nights without sleep in a city that can't stand to. As terrifying as the precipice she finds herself on -- and as much as we fear for her, stuck in a place that one unfortunate corner turned might swallow up even a person chockablock in so-called street smarts -- Hittman finds room for music, for friendship; there is beauty in this terrifying place, and grace.
This film feels like living a life. A whole life and at the time a sharp slice of one that's not yours but is, all of a sudden. I have no doubt that many if not all women will see themselves in this particular experience -- it's not one I ever experienced, or ever had to worry about (I wasn't getting anybody pregnant) and yet I did, in its oblique, minute way of making itself entirely universal. I wandered into those city streets looking for something, finding something even if I didn't see it at the time. Just the revelation of more, an other, was enough -- life in a small town can feel so claustrophobic that slipping through a crack, even for a three day stretch, can spell revelation.
There is horror and awfulness in forcing Autumn to go through everything she has to go through over the course of this movie -- unnecessary trauma heaped upon her by a world that doesn't give a shit about girls and their experiences. But just by making this movie Hittman finds a way through that, with anger and also that grace I mentioned, and makes a piece of poetry in the face of oppression, of ignorance and fear. A life without adversity might sound preferable, but oh what better people we are on its other side. Autumn's journey is every one of ours, and hers, hers alone.