By Mary Sollosi
January 28, 2020 at 10:38 PM EST
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There are certain movies — the recent Adam Sandler hit Uncut Gems is now popularly classed among them — that keep you under high stress until the credits roll. Eliza Hittman’s (Beach Rats) Sundance drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, about a teenage girl trying to get an abortion, will likely make you nervous and uneasy throughout, but there are flashes of respite. And all of these safe moments, where you can finally take a breath, take place inside a Planned Parenthood.

Sidney Flanigan — a remarkable discovery — stars as Autumn, an intense 17-year-old girl living in rural, conservative Pennsylvania, who discovers early in the film that she’s pregnant. Terrified of her affectionate mother and casually cruel stepfather finding out, and receiving little understanding from the ostensibly well-meaning doctor at her local clinic, she confides in her sympathetic cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), and the girls hatch a plan. Running on desperation and stolen cash, they take a bus to New York, where Autumn won’t need parental consent to get an abortion, and where they have no one to turn to and no place to stay.

Writer-director Hittman resists the urge, again and again, to lean into sentiment, and the film succeeds as brilliantly as it does because she is vigilant not to fall down easy traps of romanticizing or wallowing in Autumn’s misfortune — nor, it is worth noting, does she judge it. There’s no need to heavily editorialize here; Hittman is an assured enough filmmaker to portray this drama honestly and non-manipulatively, trusting her audience to interpret the complicated heartbreak of Autumn’s predicament without having to explain it to them.

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The details of this pregnancy’s conception are irrelevant to the issue at hand, and Hittman doesn’t distract us with them, revealing only what we need to know but sharing little, terrible hints at so much else. Flanigan and Ryder, both in their big-screen debuts, are highly natural actors and a compelling pair, visibly bonded by the shared indignities and unique vulnerability of teenage girlhood. The devastating scene that gives the film its title, and Flanigan’s astonishing performance in it, is worth the price of admission alone.

Never Rarely takes place in what is at once a magical, far-off New York, where Autumn and Skylar float through neon-lit nights playing arcade dance games and sharing pastries, and a stark, too-tangible reality. One particularly effective device comes in the form of the girls’ unwieldy shared suitcase that never leaves their side as they navigate a labyrinth of sidewalks; Hittman takes the time to let us feel the weight of it, lingering on them struggling to get it on the subway, up some stairs, onto a table — and that’s not to mention the other burdens, more space-efficient but no less heavy, following them at the same time.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on the same day as the March for Life in Washington, where Donald Trump became the first sitting president to speak at the annual anti-abortion event. A woman’s right to choose is one of the defining issues of our time; Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an urgent, extraordinary film for this very moment. A

Never Rarely Sometimes Always hits theaters March 13.

Follow EW’s Sundance coverage from Park City here.

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