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Indie Focus: The understated force of ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

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This newsletter is about movies, obviously, but with a special emphasis on actually going to the movies, the special magic of the shared group experience of sitting in the dark with others. In this moment of social distancing and self-quarantine, that obviously has taken on a whole new meaning and emotional impact.

This week, at least, there are still new movies being released to theaters — one of them among the best of the year so far — so make of the below what you will. If you don’t see them now, save them for later.

Among the repercussions of the coronavirus are that numerous film festivals and film releases have been pushed back or canceled. Ryan Faughnder and Meg James took a look at the impact the virus has already had on Hollywood.

I wrote about the fallout from the cancellation of this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, which has left filmmakers scrambling to figure out what to do next. As Kris Rey, director of the comedy “I Used to Go Here,” said of all the work toward finishing and premiering a film only to have it thwarted at the last minute, “It’s such a strange thing to be pregnant for so long and not give birth.”

Of course, this is the streaming era, and there are plenty of selections for anyone looking to watch something from home besides compulsively rewatching “Contagion” and “Safe.” Among the new titles this week is “Stargirl” on Disney+. Directed by Julia Hart — whose two previous films debuted at SXSW — the film stars Grace VanderWaal in its adaptation of Jerry Spinelli’s young-adult novel.


‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Having won prizes at both Sundance and Berlin, Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is easily one of the best films yet this year. A teenage girl named Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) must travel with her cousin (Talia Ryder) from her small Pennsylvania town to New York City to get an abortion without parental consent.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The movie’s sympathies, much like its political convictions, couldn’t be clearer. But paradoxically, what makes ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ so forceful — and certainly the most searingly confrontational American drama about abortion rights in recent memory — is its quality of understatement, its determination to build its argument not didactically but cinematically.”

I spoke to Hittman for my story on the film. As she said, “I’m aware that it’s a small indie movie that might not reach an audience with views that don’t align with my politics. But at the same time, I think that it’s an important film to add to the conversation. In an ideal world, people who are anti-reproductive rights would know about the film, but I don’t anticipate them watching it. I anticipate them protesting it but not seeing yet.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Hittman is telling a story but she’s also making a quietly fierce argument about female sovereignty. Autumn wants to get an abortion, take control of her life and her body. But the world doesn’t make it easy (never does). … In ‘Never Rarely,’ the hurdles to an abortion are as legion as they are maddening and pedestrian, a blunt political truism that Hittman brilliantly connects to women’s fight for emancipation.”

Writing for the AP, Lindsey Bahr said, “It would be reductive to think of ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ as simply an abortion drama. This is a film about class and gender and femaleness and youth and unwanted attention that makes the smallest moments come alive with humanity. Rarely has a filmmaker ever given so much care to show the everyday awkwardness and subtle humiliations of being a woman, from the minor things (like adjusting a bra strap) to the major. The girls navigate subways, bureaucracies and even karaoke rooms and bowling alleys with the fortitude of warriors.”

Sidney Flanigan, left, Talia Ryder and writer-director Eliza Hittman from “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
Sidney Flanigan, left, Talia Ryder and writer-director Eliza Hittman from “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

‘The Hunt’

Having had its release delayed from last year, when a provocative trailer stirred controversy and concern, “The Hunt” now finds itself landing in theaters. Directed by Craig Zobel and written by Nicke Cuse and Damon Lindelof, the satirical story is about a group of wealthy liberals who kidnap a group of so-called “deplorables” to hunt them for sport. Betty Gilpin stars as a woman fighting for her survival, leading to a showdown with the leader, played by Hilary Swank.

For The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Attempting to offend no one on either side (hey, it’s all about the Benjamins), the pretend class warfare storyline actually flees from the notion of people being hunted down because of their political beliefs: When push comes to shove (spoiler alert) the hunters are given a specific personal revenge motive for their actions.”

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Jen Yamato interviewed Gilpin for a story that will be publishing soon, and Gilpin spoke about how many people thought they knew what the movie was all about from just an early trailer. “If I had my druthers as a viewer of any movie, I wouldn’t know anything going in. I wouldn’t have seen a trailer, I wouldn’t have heard a single opinion, but we’re living in this world — a world that I fully participate in — where my phone has told me so much about the movie before I even see it. ... So to me, the fun of reading the script was with every page, screaming at my computer in shock. But the way this particular movie has gone, there’s been so much noise in the wrong direction.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott said, “The targets are easy and the caricatures are blunt, but the filmmakers aren’t inflaming passions so much as soothing them with laughter and mayhem. They’re trying to make a movie that everyone will like about how Americans hate one another. That’s a tricky needle to thread, and ‘The Hunt’ manages the trick by being a good deal less provocative than its subject matter.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “As social satire ‘The Hunt’ is so aimless in its reasoning that it’s hard to even know whom it’s for. Who’s going to feel good about it, or even mad about it? Who’s even going to be entertained? … This is a ‘there’s blame on both sides’ movie, one that sets up the conspiracy-obsessed right and the so-called politically correct snobs of the left as equal-opportunity offenders. But a movie where just about everybody is repellent isn’t daring; it’s a copout.”

Hilary Swank, left, and Betty Gilpin in “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel.
Hilary Swank, left, and Betty Gilpin in “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel.
(Patti Perret / Universal Pictures)

‘Bacurau’

Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, the genre-bending “Bacurau” features a cast including Sônia Braga and Udo Kier in its story of a remote village overrun by armed mercenaries.

In a review that paired the film with Chinese director Diao Yinan’s “The Wild Goose Lake,” for The Times, Justin Chang wrote that this “fantastically amped-up new movie, ‘Bacurau,’ set in the vast backcountry known as the sertão, mounts its own barbed critique of violent oppression and class struggle, in Brazil and elsewhere. But compared with [the filmmakers’] predecessors, it’s broader in scope and crazier in its ambitions.”

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For rogerebert.com, Monica Castillo wrote, “‘Bacurau’ never wastes a chance to leave a mark on its audience. Whether the camera is taking in the beautiful steppes of the area or witnessing a battle of the wills between Braga and Kier, the viewer is always meant to be entertained and thinking. … There is a reverberating message throughout the film of community and solidarity in the face of so much oppression. It’s a message that needs no translation, and one we may catch in more movies protesting inequality.”

Sônia Braga, center, in the movie “Bacurau.”
Sônia Braga, center, in the movie “Bacurau.”
(Kino Lorber)


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