Greetings again from the darkness. Movies that put youngsters in peril can go one of two directions: the story can feel contrived to the point of manipulation, or it can be real and heartfelt with commentary on society. Filmmaker Eliza Hittman proved her mettle with BEACH RATS (2017), and she proves yet again, that her instincts translate to the screen in stories and characters that hit a nerve.
It’s stunning to discover that this is the first screen credit for Sidney Flanigan who plays 17 year old Autumn. We first see her onstage at her school talent show singing a soulful rendition of “He’s Got the Power”, a 1963 song by The Exciters. Her performance stands in contrast to the mostly generic acts from her classmates, though it’s our first hint at how she is perceived. Autumn is one of those teens who seems to be naturally burdened with more than she can carry. A bloated belly leads her to take a pregnancy test at the local clinic, where she is informed that “a positive is always a positive” – a brilliant line than doesn’t hold true for all interpretations.
The clinic worker shows Autumn an anti-abortion video, which leads her to Google do-it-yourself abortion, and finally to the realization that because of Pennsylvania’s requirement for parental consent, she’ll have to travel to New York City for the procedure. Fortunately for Autumn, she has a trusted and resourceful friend/cousin/co-worker in Skylar (Talia Ryder, who will appear in Spielberg’s upcoming WEST SIDE STORY remake). The girls skim from their cash registers at the grocery store they both work at, and then hop on the bus towards the city.
Their time in the city is an adventure unto itself. By this time we’ve seen some of the everyday obstacles faced by teenage girls, including thoughtless teenage boys, a loathsome stepfather (Ryan Eggold), and a sleazy store manager. All of this is in addition to the challenges brought on by being a sexually active minor. On the trip, they meet Jasper (Theodore Pellerin, “On Becoming a God in Central Florida”), a fellow bus traveler who strikes up a conversation. Is he a good guy or not? Can he be trusted or not? Again, these are situations that the teens must navigate through instincts not yet fully developed.
A questionnaire administered at the Planned Parenthood clinic provides the film’s title, as well as one of its most powerful scenes. Ms. Flanigan is exceptional as this simple form requires her to face her situation and her life as she answers questions regarding her sexual and personal history. Ms. Ryder is also tremendous in making Skylar such a strong young woman and friend. This film and these actresses show more than they tell. The minimal dialogue contrasts to the many movies who portray gabby teens. Writer-director Hittman seems to make movies more appreciated by critics than mainstream audiences, but it seems her time is coming. She makes her political belief quite clear, but does so by focusing on the real world that teenage girls face. It’s a dramatic work of art with extraordinary camera work by Helene Louvart (the excellent INVISIBLE LIFE, 2019).
watch the trailer: