Travis Leamons // Film Critic
It was probably unwise to watch two films in 24 hours where the protagonist is either a mother searching for her missing daughter or a high school teen who doesn’t want to be a mother. But that’s what happened when my curiosity got piqued for Netflix’s LOST GIRLS and Focus Features’ NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS.
Both films played the Sundance Film Festival and would arrive digitally and theatrically on March 13. Theater closures due to the Coronavirus pandemic halted NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS from maximizing its exposure for a wider audience. As a result, the studio is releasing it early on digital platforms this weekend, as it did with its period comedy EMMA.
Interest in LOST GIRLS was prompted by its filmmaker Liz Garbus. The award-winning documentarian behind WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? and WHO KILLED GARRETT PHILLIPS? transitions into making her first fictional film, which revolves around a true-crime mystery. It’s about single mom Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan), who goes in search of her missing daughter Shannan after the police show a lack of concern. The story is based on the Long Island serial killer case that remains open to this day. (Journalist Robert Kolker chronicled Shannan’s 2010 disappearance and four other young females who vanished with the novel LOST GIRLS: AN UNSOLVED AMERICAN MYSTERY.)
Garbus acknowledges that this is an unsolved mystery at the outset, basically telling us this is a film without a proper ending. But LOST GIRLS is not a procedural fixated on the investigatory morass of evidence collecting and rounding up suspects. The mystery is not the real story. Our story is about the victims and those who are enraged at being ignored. There are persons like Mari (a blue-collar mother working construction and waitressing to support her two daughters still living at home) and her oldest, Shannan (who has left the nest and is aloof when speaking to mom over the phone). There’s distance in her voice. When Shannan doesn’t show up for dinner, it seems usual. Then, nobody hears from her for 48 hours.
After filing a missing person’s report and getting little response, Mari goes on the offensive, mama-bearing her way up to police commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) to pursue the case. Thanks to a police dog needing to relieve itself, four bodies are discovered near a Long Island highway. All were female Craigslist escorts for hire. As the police dig up remains, Mari’s dogged pursuit for answers unearths some ugly truths about her daughter.
LOST GIRLS is a performance-driven vehicle for Amy Ryan. She goes from a tired mother working paycheck to paycheck to becoming a tenacious activist for those missing. It’s a total about-face to the way she behaved in GONE BABY GONE. That film crossed my mind more than once. Ryan is, by far, the strength of the picture, helping to offset a weak script with a quick third act to wrap it all up.
Still, Garbus’ film offers a realistic depiction of how nurturing and limited opportunities in a collapsing economy collide.
“Everybody counts, or nobody counts” –– This is the personal credo of one of my favorite fictional characters, LAPD detective Harry Bosch. He’s a detective that makes every case a mission regardless of social status. The boys in blue in LOST GIRLS seem more strayed than the women lost. “Who spends this much time looking for a missing hooker?” remarks Dean Winters, who plays the dismissive detective Bostwick. The Harry Bosches and Olivia Bensons (for you LAW & ORDER: SVU fans) of the world – that’s who. And those families that grieve when sons and daughters are snatched in the night and never seen again. Garbus never loses sight, and her representation in the director’s chair affords a feminist perspective in how the women and men of LOST GIRLS are presented.
It’s easy to shame the victim. Harder are the choices that have to be made. Sometimes you just end up, begrudgingly, reaping what you sow.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
Reaping what you sow does not apply to the subject of Eliza Hittman’s NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS. And, frankly, any male trying to critique this Sundance festival winner honestly arrives at a disadvantage. They have never experienced the reproductive process – a journey that, like a woman’s right to choose, is very personal. Hittman’s latest is such a film.
Sidney Flanigan is Autumn, a milky-white teenager living in rural Pennsylvania, who discovers she’s pregnant. She is terrified. Terrified of her parents finding out. Terrified of what she’s going to do. A fellow classmate slut-shames Autumn with leers and sexual innuendo. A former betrothed and the likely father, perhaps? The answers she gets from a local clinic visit doesn’t do much to ease her tension. The only person Autumn can talk to is her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder). They clerk at a neighborhood market and, out of desperation, decide to skim from the registers and take a bus to New York, where parental consent isn’t required to get an abortion. With a known destination, but no one to turn to and no place to stay, we remain still, albeit nervous, watching how Autumn’s situation plays out.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS is a quote-unquote abortion film. That alone will turn off a section of the viewing public. It’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last. The raw and unapologetic nature of its subject is handled in a similar capacity. Much like her other two films (IT FELT LIKE LOVE and BEACH RATS), Hittman relies on a cinema verite style to pull us into Autumn’s world as we follow her down cracked sidewalks, through the underbelly of New York’s subway system, and stepping into a poorly-lit abortion clinic.
In her first screen performance, Flanigan is astonishing. With an ashen countenance comparable to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Flanigan’s Autumn is scared and afraid. Hittman doesn’t try and be sentimental about Autumn’s unplanned pregnancy. That’s not her style. She prefers the unvarnished truth instead of trying to manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS continues to explore Hittman’s fascination with vulnerable characters at the expense of their burgeoning sexuality. As we watch Autumn and Skylar navigate around New York, it feels as if we’ve unlocked a diary and are reading about their struggles as they take turns moving their cumbersome shared suitcase wherever they roam. Each new diary entry is presenting a different movie scene and observation.
Hittman maintains a slim narrative and keeps details surrounding the pregnancy’s conception close to the vest. It’s likely the leering classmate, but another possibility exists, and it’s even more distressing. The insinuation is in how the camera lingers in certain scenes or how Autumn reacts when in his presence.
The assailability of teenage girlhood remains constant regardless if you identify as a Boomer, Gen X-er, or Xennial/Millenial. The film never loses that sight or takes it for granted. In the scene that gives the film its title, Autumn’s frailty leads to a devastating breakdown. She started out terrified. Now she is destroyed. But she’s not alone. We are a sympathy surrogate sharing in her breakdown. It is a powerful scene and one I shall not soon forget.