9 October 2020.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS ***
If you think these words are about love, you’re sorely mistaken. This film is the short odyssey of a young girl trying to get an abortion. Incisive like an operation, in an ice-cold atmosphere with very little dialogue, the trying story is recounted almost like a documentary. And it is trying when a girl can’t tell her mother and has only her young cousin to accompany her to New York to find a solution to her problem, which is deeper than a simple mistake with a youngster her age. With little money, no place to sleep, they hang around the city’s train and subway stations waiting for her next day’s appointment at the clinic….This is the harrowing itinerary of a girl in trouble determined to end her unwanted pregnancy.
The mainly female cast, crew and director Eliza Hittman have chosen to tell this age-old story with hardly any emotion or pathos, merely following the two girls’ trip to the city with practically clinical precision, down to the interviews in the abortion clinics. With no superfluous talk between the girls and the people they meet, the feelings of camaraderie and heaviness of the facts somehow come through. There is no preaching, no judgement, just banal, matter-of-fact scenes that show both determination and inevitability. And you wonder what their future will be… A sad, cold tale indeed which took awards at Sundance and the Berlin film festivals. This could have been a Sophia Coppola film.
This film starts by telling us that history never dies. Not only that, it lives on. This is true of course, especially where slavery and the effect it had on relations between black and white in the U.S. is the issue. This film’s intention is, I believe, to illustrate how strong an influence slavery and the society it permitted had but, despite the best efforts of its writers and directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz and the excellent acting of Janelle Monae, who essentially carries the film, it lets itself down.
The film opens on a cotton plantation during the civil war and the first forty minutes show nothing more than the violence handed out almost routinely to the black workers by their white overseers and some Confederate troops who have wandered in from the front. They are continuously abused, tortured, raped and shot. It is all pretty heavy and not for the fainthearted. Janelle Monae, as Eden, emerges as one of the very few who put up any resistance, and she pays for it.
Then the scene moves forward to the present where Janelle, now called Veronica, has a husband and a sweet daughter and is a successful author and lecturer on women’s status, particularly black women’s status. She comes in for abuse here too, coldness at the reception of a hotel, a table next to the kitchen in the restaurant for a dinner with her girlfriends, the suggestion that she should take Prosecco when she has ordered champagne, etc. Not much imagination there, but it is abuse of a different, more subtle type. Once that is done the scene shifts again as she is kidnapped on leaving her friends, and she finds herself in the plantation once more, picking the cotton, subject to the same suffering as before. You now have to figure out what comes when. A little complicated but its stands up and so far so good. We have seen spectacular scenery, a vivid and probably true recreation of a plantation in the deep South (although I’m not sure they had ovens to burn the slaves’ corpses in – a bit troubling, that) good costume work (the wide-skirted belles, the rough-hewn soldiers, the pretty children and the torn and ragged slaves). Even the cotton looks real and, for those of you who have never picked cotton, that’s how it is done.
Given all of that you would have thought a good film might have emerged. It doesn’t. Apart from that of the leading lady the acting is at best mediocre. The dialogue is awful. I’m sorry but people just don’t say the words put into their mouths here and I would advise Messrs Bush and Rentz to stick to directing in future and leave the words in more capable hands. And the story, particularly the ending, is just silly. Someone, we never know who or why, has set up a kind of theme park to recreate the glories of the South. It has its own cotton field, its own country mansion, its own hanging tree and a good few dozen entrapped black people to play the slaves, except it’s not playing. The film is ridden with clichés and stereotyped characters and frankly is an insult to the people who did suffer as slaves in those awful times.
The film could have been good. The idea is good, if it was to make sure that we do not forget the horrors of the past, but it went wrong. If the idea however, and I am wearing my cynical hat here, was to make money by climbing onto the bandwagon which this subject occupies at this particular time, then it is doubly wrong. Watch at your own peril.
Superb **** Very Good *** Good ** Mediocre * Miserable – no stars
Neptune Ravar Ingwersen reviews film extensively for publications in Switzerland. She views 4 to 8 films a week and her aim is to sort the wheat from the chaff for readers.