Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama won hearts at Sundance and racked up Independent Spirit nods, but proved too quiet for the Academy.

By Mary Sollosi
April 23, 2021 at 01:30 PM EDT

They're destined to score zero Academy Awards, but they won our attention throughout a year (and awards season) like no other. Ahead of the 93rd Oscars ceremony on April 25, EW is breaking down the year's best movies, performances, and directorial achievements that were nominated for nothing.

The film: Independent filmmaker Eliza Hittman was first inspired to research America's horrifically restrictive abortion laws in 2012, but it wasn't until the election of Donald Trump that she felt urgently called to dramatize what she had learned. Her third feature, the follow-up to 2017's Beach Rats, chronicles a teenage girl's experience navigating a healthcare system that is not only inadequate, but designed to prevent our most vulnerable women from getting reproductive care that they need.  

Newcomer Sidney Flanigan stars as Autumn, a pregnant Pennsylvania teenager seeking an abortion. At 17, she's too young in her home state to obtain one without parental consent — to her credit, Hittman never overexplains, but she does efficiently make quite clear that Autumn's family would be supportive of neither an abortion nor a pregnancy — so she and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) take a bus to New York City with nothing but one huge suitcase, some stolen cash, and the address of a Planned Parenthood.

The impeccable indie debuted last January at Sundance, where it earned raves (including an A from EW) and won a Special Jury Award for Neorealism. Seven weeks later, Focus Features released it in theaters on March 13, 2020 — Friday the 13th, and a date that many Americans remember as their first in quarantine. It was already a small movie, unlikely to blow up the box office, but that release date doomed it to worse receipts than anyone might have predicted to begin with.  

Sidney Flanigan in 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always'
| Credit: Angal Field/Focus Features

Why it wasn't nominated: The unfortunate timing of its release notwithstanding, Never Rarely would have always been a long shot with the Oscars. There are the obvious reasons — unknown actors are a tough sell, and it's a fairly thorny subject even for loudly liberal Hollywood — but the Academy's failure to recognize Hittman's film more broadly illustrates the laziness of its typical taste.

"I always try to avoid exposition when writing," Hittman told EW last March. She drops us into Autumn's world without piling on backstory (we never even learn who got her pregnant) and takes us back out of it without overwhelming reassurance: Autumn returns home, where the best we can hope for is that nobody is ever the wiser and her inhospitable life just doesn't get any worse. In both form and narrative, the intimate film is a masterpiece of understatement. That Hittman was able to show such restraint while depicting something so devastating is nothing short of Herculean, and that her movie is so affecting despite her refusal to manipulate the viewer speaks to the incredible sensitivity of the filmmaking.

But wait a minute, the Academy wants reassurance! It wants the loose ends tied up, the pieces falling into place, a catharsis so solid you can hold it in your hand and put on your mantel right next to an Oscar, should you deserve one for having made such a digestible movie! Had Hittman editorialized with some heavy emoting or a wrenching score or high school–level symbolism, we might be having a different conversation. But the fact is, her exquisitely made film was never an Oscar movie; it was always something better.

Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Never Rarely deserves to be recognized for both Flanigan and Ryder's performances, for Hittman's writing and direction, for Hélène Louvart's empathetic cinematography and Scott Cummings' delicate edit. Happily, other awards bodies have stepped up: The film leads the pack in Independent Spirit Award nods (with seven) and has collected a handful of other accolades (among dozens of nominations), mostly from various critics associations.

Hittman has gained new fans with her most lauded film yet, her star risen in the indie scene where she was already admired by critics and festivalgoers. Whether she stays in that space; makes the classic crossover into big-budget, IP-based studio filmmaking (like another Sundance-bred filmmaker navigating this awards season with her third feature); or tries anything in between, Never Rarely heralds a turning point for her career, its recognition (even if not from the Academy) hopefully enabling her to create whatever challenging, perceptive work she wants to next.

Her first-time stars are also well-positioned to launch their own careers. There's no denying the power of Flanigan's performance, especially in the shattering scene that gives the film its title. Ryder, too, matches her as a compelling onscreen presence, and the pair demonstrate a visible but unspoken understanding in their shared experience of young womanhood. Both young actresses could go anywhere from here — and could hardly ask for a better first credit.

And then, Never Rarely Sometimes Always can also be remembered as a deeply moving, carefully researched document of a strange, cruel fact of life in America — a truth that will hopefully, eventually, become history itself.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is currently streaming on HBO Max.

Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's best films.

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