Focus Features
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eliza Hittman
Screenwriter: Eliza Hittman
Cast: Sidney Flanagan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/18/20
Opens: March 13, 2020

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

In her third feature movie, writer-diector Eliza Hittman continues to explore people who are vulnerable, youths who are missing the proper guidance in life and who are put into positions that they would not have found themselves if they had the proper direction. In the director’s “It Felt Like Love,” a young woman dreams of emulating the sexual exploits of a more experience person, putting herself into a dangerous situation. In “Beach Rats” a teen “experiments” with drugs and looks to meet older men. Now with “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Hitmann focuses on “Autumn” (Sidney Flanigan), a seventeen-year-old girl who must deal with a pregnancy that she never wanted but with the good luck to have a friend like Skylar (Talia Ryder), who acts more like Autumn’s older
sister willing to go the distance with Autumn during a difficult time in the younger girl’s life.

After Trump was elected president largely with the support of rural Americans, voters in small towns and farms complained that city people consider them racists, sexists, homophobic and the like. We would like to think that this is true, yet as Hitmann portrays small-town Pennsylvania, at least through the eyes of people on the cusp of mature adulthood, a large number of these Americans are what they say they are not. For example, when Autumn is performing in a talent show, one guy yells out “slut” in the middle of her song, and the attendees including even Autumn’s young parents, appear to think nothing of it.

Autumn, who appears not to realize that she is pregnant until eighteen weeks have passed since her last menstrual period, tries to self-abort the fetus by taking a slew of Vitamin C pills, then punches her belly without much result save for some large bruises. Stealing some money from the supermarket with the help of her cousin, she takes a bus to New York, not even considering that she would need to get a round-trip ticket, that she lacks money for a hotel, that she would have to stay in New York two nights. On the bus Skylar is hit on by a young passenger (Théodore Pellerin), who will try to encourage Skylar to go with him “downtown” and who the girls will later exploit for money.

In this slice-of-life drama, Hittman takes us first to a rural clinic, the agent explaining that there are alternatives to abortion, that there are people who would gladly adopt the future child. Since it’s too late for Autumn to get an abortion in her area, she and Skylar take two buses toward New York’s Port Authority Terminal, going to Planned Parenthood on 44 Court Street in downtown Brooklyn, and back up to a Manhattan facility which would be able to conduct the procedure.

Autumn has no particular support from her parents, and in fact by showing us the youthful age of the father and mother in the audience of the talent show, Hitmann may be making the point that they too had babies while they were teens. Hélène Louvart films all in 16mm, from the broken-down areas of rural Pennsylvania to the chaos of New York.

Here is an ideal slice of life drama. No melodrama, no frantic behavior, with Autumn’s emotions showing only when she began to cry during a social worker’s interview. At that meeting, she is asked a series of questions such as “Were you ever forced to have sex when you did not want to” for which she needed to answer “Never, rarely, sometimes or always.” In Hitmann’s hands, the two young performers, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder relate to each other as though they knew each other for a decade. But even to her cousin and best friend, Autumn never opens up. She does not tell her even that she’s pregnant, just that she has “cramps.” These are inarticulate people, the sort that just might vote for politicians who do not necessary offer much but who are grand showmen who can entertain and who do not evoke articulate responses from their audience.

101 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

REVERSING ROE – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Directors:  Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Screenwriters: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/12/18
Opens: September 13, 2018
Reversing Roe (2018)
It used to be that politically conscious Americans agreed that the Democratic and Republican parties were like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, characters made famous by Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.”  The folks in the House and Senate and in state legislatures would do their jobs in such a bipartisan way that pundits could not be blamed if they were bored, as if we all prefer conflict, some signs of life in our legislatures.  This attitude has been reversed.  Democrats unanimously voted for the Affordable Care Act while Republicans unanimously voted against. And while the Supreme Court once decided cases like neutral jurists, now we all know how the nine people with lifetime appointments will vote: it’s all about politics.  If you were appointed by a Republican you voted conservative.  Democrats, progressive.

In this regard Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s “Reversing Roe,” while not even mentioning the name Brett Kavanaugh as presumably his nomination came after the film was completed, has come to theaters now at an opportune time.  How so? While once, the Great Political Slogan was “It’s the economy stupid,” that wages, the stock market and the general health of the dollar was the big issue, now money is second place to social issues, namely gun rights, immigration controversies, and most of all, abortion.  In fact Stern and Sundberg capture the point in the final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in which Trump allegedly sews up victory when he concludes that we cannot allow “partial birth” abortions while Clinton came out in protection of women’s reproductive rights.

Never mind that partial birth is not a medical term while referring to fetuses that are “ripped from a woman’ womb,” as only 1.3% of abortions take place then.  Trump does not likely believe in the so-called pro-life movement as he had come out for choice in 1990 and he is arguably one the least religious chiefs of state in our history.  But he knew that would have to win big among evangelicals, so he flipped.

You can try to guess the writer-directors’ own opinions on abortion, but you would have a difficult time doing so, as this documentary is completely fair to both sides.  Each side gets equal time, each side gets famous advocates’ opinions.  However there is absolutely nothing new in what they say.  Anyone who watches the news must be aware of every argument, so this picture, which is cerebral (even while showing violent demonstrations), rehashes controversies that should find a place in a museum of ideas if one is ever constructed.

Republicans, who today are as conservative as they ever were, are generally pro-life. Democrats, who today have moved to center-left, are pro-choice. One side says that government has no business messing with women’s bodies; the other side insists that a fetus is a separate body, a new form of life that should not be “killed.” The most important question that splits our country on this issue is this: when does a life fall under the protection of the U.S. Constitution?  Pro-choice folks say when it is born, i.e. outside of the mothers’ wombs.  Pro-life people say that what is growing inside women’s wombs should be protected, though some say the protection falls at the moment of conception, others stating that it should be protected at some time whether during the first trimester or the second of the third.  Roe v. Wade in 1973 held that abortions must be allowed during the first and second trimesters.

Yet since Roe, some states have tried to interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling that undue burdens must not be placed on pregnant women to mean that you can force a woman to watch a sonogram, to get spousal approval, to go only to institutions that have doctors affiliated with hospitals.

In other words, what’s new?  Still this film is an excellent primer for those so interested in sports that they have no time to learn about the welfare of the United States, i.e. people who used to turn to the last pages of the New York Post or Daily News when people still read newspapers.

99 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B

BIRTHRIGHT: A WAR STORY – movie review



    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya

    Grade: B

    Director:  Civia Tamarkin

    Written by: Lucina Fisher, Civia Tamarkin

    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/11/17

    Opens: July 14 in NY; July 28 in LA

    Perhaps the number one priority of the conservative movement in America is that government should restrict itself largely to the defense of the people; that regulations on business should be reduced; and that the privacy of the individual and the family is paramount.  Why, then, are the most conservative politicians-largely Republicans in the red states—the ones most eager to regulate the most intimate choices of women? Specifically conservative legislators in the states, and members of the House Senate, Supreme Court and the Executive department on a national level, seem determined to override or at least weaken Roe v. Wade, which within some limits gave women the right to end their own pregnancies.  In Civia Tamarkin’s documentary “Birthright: A War Story,” the filmmaker, with the input of co-writer Luchina Fisher, presents both sides in the abortion battle.  And while the film does present ideologues on both sides, those who are “pro-life” and those who are “pro-choice,” this is not a fair and balanced presentation, nor does it have to be.  Tamarkin sides with those who want to keep government out of their bedrooms, and who reluctantly seek to end their pregnancies for reasons of their own.  Some do not want more kids than they have now.  Others are not yet ready to care for any babies, while some have had fetuses diagnosed with infirmities that would likely impact on the survival of these unborn. 

    So Tamarkin deals with both sides, all part of the culture wars going on in our politically divided country.  Pro-choice people in the film say that women should have the right to decide what to do with their own bodies, and fetuses, last I checked, exist wholly within the bodies of these individuals.  Pro-life people say that no, the fetus is a separate form of life and has rights of its own separate from the rights of its prospective mothers.  As the film progresses, you’re left with a summing up that people are pro-life if they believe the fetus should enjoy the same protections of the U.S. Constitution as an actual baby.  In that regard, they may argue even against contraception, in that IUDs, pills, condoms and the like are almost as bad as abortion, as they prevent the egg from being fertilized.  By doing that, they say, they are preventing a new human being from being brought to the banquet of life.

    Tamarkin soon enough opens the debate to a larger context: that not only is the right to end a pregnancy the privilege of a woman, but that there’s a general war going on against women.  In one situation, an Orthodox Jewish woman was given five minutes to make a decision.  The doctor wanted to do C-section and she wanted a natural childbirth.  But since she was on Medicaid, the doctor believed he had the right to dismiss her preference, and suggested that if she does not sign for a C-section, she would be sent right home.  It gets worse: even without her signature, she was wheeled into the operating room, given the C-section against her will and without her signature.  She sued the doctors and the hospital.  Two years after filing suit, the case is still ongoing. What happened to what we learned on “The Good Wife,” wherein judges became available immediately at the beck and call of the law firm?

    While Tamarkin does capture several demonstrations by citizens on both sides of the argument, even capturing the murky interior of a hospital in black-and-white cinematography, she makes virtually no use of cinematic techniques such as special effects, animation, anything to vary the pace. As a result, the major part of the film consists of talking heads citing the usual arguments, those any educated adult by now should be familiar with.  The funereal piano music, casting an aura of cheap sentiment, could be scrapped to allow spectators to concentrate more on the spoken word. 

    But who knows?  A lot of so-called educated adults have no idea that there’s a war going on.  A group of high-school students asked to explain Roe v. Wade wondered whether it was something about black history or at any rate was something they learned about way back—as if they had to know it for a test but forget that this major decision could well have an effect on their own lives in the not too distant future.  In that regard, “Birthright” is an important contribution.

    Unrated.  105 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?