One of the purest pleasures of regularly attending the Sundance Film Festival is watching a filmmaker grow into what Lady Bird’s mom might witheringly refer to as the best version of themself. It’s a bit like one of those human evolution charts, except that instead of witnessing early man gradually fix their posture until they’re in a fully upright homo sapien stance, you’re seeing a year-by-year, movie-by-movie progression into creative maturity.
Some would say that Eliza Hittman achieved that well before now. She certainly doesn’t need my stamp of approval: The New York-based writer-director has been earning raves since 2013, when her debut, It Felt Like Love, premiered here at the fest, as all of her features now have. But to this particular critic, there has to this point been something a little monotonal about her unvarnished downers. However rich in environmental detail (those bright Coney Island lights!), however blessed with naturalistic performances, Love and its similarly celebrated follow-up, Beach Rats, are hemmed in by the sense that their sullen adolescent characters are stuck on a one-way subway ride to lost innocence. Both films are sensitively observed but also a little predictable in their downward trajectories, making sexual awakening invariably a rude awakening.
That’s not entirely the case with Hittman’s moving third feature, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Grade: B+). Make no mistake, this too is another unsparing drama about the hardships that can come with coming of age—sex brings, as it does in all of Hittman’s films, little more than heartache, disappointment, and trouble. And the trouble this time is very serious indeed: Reserved 17-year-old Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan, expressive in her introversion) is pregnant in rural Pennsylvania, where her options are exceedingly limited. That’s a greater obstacle than Hittman has ever placed before one of her withdrawn, confused young protagonists. The paradox of the film is that in doing so, she somehow liberates the character from the crushing inevitability that’s defined her work until now.
Maybe it’s the agency she affords Autumn, taking charge of her predicament rather than stumbling into telegraphed misfortune. Sure she’s not ready to be a mother, and afraid to tell either her parents or the abusive jerk who knocked her up, the girl enlists the help of her cousin, fellow teenage cashier Syklar (Talia Ryder), and the two leave for New York City to secure her an abortion, with barely enough in their pockets to cover the bus tickets, let alone the operation. There’s an urgency, dramatic and political and new in Hittman’s repertoire, to the road-trip structure. Never Rarely Sometimes Always has already been compared to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days, the gripping Romanian thriller that seemed to introduce the whole world to a new national cinema, and which similarly revolved around two young women jumping through hoops and navigating legal barriers to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. That film, though, was set 30 years ago, in a country under authoritarian rule, which makes the parallels between its cultural trials and the ones this film depicts pretty dispiriting. The point wouldn’t be lost on Hittman, who opens her movie with a 1950s-themed high-school talent show—a quick and shrewd way to visually imply how little progress the country has made in some areas.
All of which makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always vital and timely, especially at a moment when the legality of abortion is coming under fresh judicial attack, and lawmakers all over the country are trying to curtail a woman’s right to choose, increasingly with the proposed threat of severe punishment. Yet Hittman isn’t really a polemicist. She expresses her empathy and political conscience through a refined version of what’s become her signature style, zeroing in on details of place and behavior, both magnified by the reliably involving scenario of two kids from the sticks navigating the hustle, bustle, and bright lights of the city. And moments of startling, unaffected tenderness peak through the grimness of the circumstances—the clinic questionnaire scene from which Hittman pulls her title is heartbreaking, though so too are quieter moments like the one where Skylar makes peace with her cousin after a spat by wordlessly applying eye shadow. It’s a pleasure to finally join the chorus of praise and see Hittman hit her stride; this is the movie I’ve been waiting for from her.
Lawrence Michael Levine is another American indie success story making a big leap forward at Sundance this year. Though I plenty liked his last feature, the screwball hipster murder mystery Wild Canaries, he’s working in an exhilarating new register with Black Bear (Grade: B+), a tricky psychosexual three-hander that studies the conflicts that simmer to a boil at a lake house in Upstate New York. Said secluded cabin is where DIY filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) decamps for a writers’ retreat, hoping to push past her creative block. But the place belongs to a couple, musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon), transparently going through some things. For a while, Black Bear just feeds off the competing energies and increasingly antagonistic rapport of its characters, whose loaded interactions gradually reveal fault lines in the relationships and falsehoods in how these frazzled creatives present themselves. It’s often scathingly funny—a dark comic millennial spin on the Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? template, buoyed by three expertly modulated performances and acidic bon mots.
Levine, though, has more up his sleeve. Suffice to carefully say, the film isn’t any more what it initially seems than the characters are; a schism eventually reveals new layers to its questions about the balancing act between artistic and romantic lives—an issue that Levine, who’s married to and often collaborates with fellow filmmaker Sophia Takal, might be pretty qualified to grapple with. I haven’t made up my mind whether Black Bear entirely coheres, and I’m underwhelmed by how it all ultimately comes together. But the film’s parallel passages are totally thrilling on their lonesome, and the break from one to the other is the kind of bold swing for the fences I come to Sundance to experience fresh. What’s most recommendable, though, about this twisty meta gabfest is Plaza’s lead performance, the most volatile and nuanced work of her career; what starts as almost a commentary on her sardonic star persona deepens into something more volcanic and real, even as the one-time sitcom star casts the authenticity of the emotions under fresh suspicion. It’s not just the directors making quantum leaps forward at Sundance.