2/12/21

Never Rarely Sometimes Always a Gem

 


 NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
(2020)

Directed by Eliza Hittman

Focus Features, 101 minutes, PG-13

★★★★ ½

 

What do you do if you’re an unpopular small-town girl from a dysfunctional family and find yourself pregnant at age 17? That’s the dilemma facing Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan). You might try the local pregnancy center, but only if you can stomach the patronizing faux concern of its staff or the anti-abortion video they ask you to watch. You might also consider a termination, but if you’re 17 and live in Pennsylvania, that requires parental consent and who wants to fight such a battle with an ineffectual mother and her jerk of a partner?

 

Never Rarely Sometimes Never is a quiet but deeply moving look inside the world of a not-a-kid but not-quite-an-adult from Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. The film’s town, Ellensboro, is fictional though its profile is similar to that of Sunbury: small (<10,000), along the Susquehanna River, overwhelmingly white, conservative, paternal, played out, and inhabited by just enough shady characters to intensify whatever attitude comes naturally to an adolescent.

 

Autumn knows she can’t be a mom or carry a child to term in a community in which some already think she’s a “slut” and don’t even know about her condition. Internet research suggests she needs to go to New York to deal with her pregnancy. The film thus evolves into a road trip for Autumn and her sole support: her 18-year-old cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). This entails a 175-mile bus ride to New York and entering a city they know mostly in the abstract. Their ignorance and youthful nonchalance might be good things–too much information could have driven them despair.

 

To say things don’t go in-and-out smoothly is an understatement, but full credit to director Eliza Hittman for keeping the focus on Autumn’s choices rather than turning the movie into a hokey run-from-danger potboiler. There is uncertainty–is the young man they meet on the bus trustworthy? –but the worries remain psychological rather than physical. Add a bad Ellensboro misreading of Autumn’s condition and the need to be in New York for two days to the list of things Autumn and Skylar need to figure out.

 

Almost no one saw this movie in a theatre, though it garnered praise and prizes at Sundance and other indie film festivals. Blame COVID as one reason why it quickly went to video-on-demand, though I can’t help but think that its subject matter, lack of recognizable stars, slow pacing, and hot-button politics would have deterred wide distribution in the best of times. That’s a crying shame, as this is a very good movie. Watch for Flanigan and Ryder in the future, as both show promise, especially in their ability to dribble out emotion rather than resorting to histrionic floods.

 

They also know how to get inside the logic systems of the liminal not kid/not adult world I mentioned above. There are several scenes that might make you wonder why they did illogical A rather than rational B. Remind yourself that they are still tethered to what they were, not what they are becoming. Autumn is stoic and brave, but she’s also teen-like in her sullenness, her devotion to her phone, her weak interpersonal skills, and even her working-class semi-Goth style. And know this: The film’s title references response prompts to intake questions at Planned Parenthood clinics. These include questions such as: Has anyone harmed or threatened you? Has anyone ever forced you to have sex? Have you ever had unprotected sex?

 

Unless you can answer “never” to queries such as these, be wary of judging Autumn. Perhaps it would be better to redirect sanctimony toward those who condemn or condone without walking in her shoes. Among the many virtues of an interior film such as this is that it forces us to imagine rather than offering bromides or laurels.

 

Rob Weir

2/10/21

Piranesi a Unique Mindbending Tale

 


 

 

PIRANESI (2020)

By Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury Publishing, 272 pages.

★★★★★

 

Piranesi may not be the most literary novel I’ve read this year, but it’s certainly the most fascinating. Explaining why without giving an aerial tour of the entire book is difficult; Piranesi is that unique.

 

Most of the book is set in an alternate universe, but of what sort? Another dimension? A different planet? Mind castles? An underworld? A post-apocalyptic city? A wormhole? It consists of clouds, birds, fish, monumental buildings, and water. Clarke describes it as, “where architecture and oceans were muddled together.” The ocean sustains and endangers; that is, it provides food and makeshift clothing and tools, but walls cannot contain it. Piranesi is both the narrator and chronicler of a world he calls “The House,” that is apparently occupied by just two people: Piranesi and an older man he calls “The Other.” One of his tasks is to keep track of the ocean tides, lest he or The Other be swept away by periodic surges that drown the halls.

 

When I use the term “halls,” think something akin to where Pompeii and Versailles meet M. C. Escher and ancient Crete’s minotaur maze. Or, at least, that’s what it conjured for me. In other words, it’s vast, enigmatic, and parts of it are in ruin. Some might know that Piranesi is also the surname of an 18th-century Italian archaeologist and artist best known for his 16 “imaginary prisons,” engravings that were Escher before Escher.

 

Our Piranesi spends 11 years investigating The House one hall at a time and recording observations in journals. His explorations tell him that great civilizations once thrived­–their statues occupy marble niches and artifacts strew the halls–but insofar as he can tell, it was a long time ago, as he finds the remains of just 13 other individuals. They are the ones whose bones Piranesi has collected and whom he has given names such as Biscuit-Box Man, Fish Leather Man, Concealed Person, and Folded-Up Child.

 

Piranesi’s relationship with The Other is essentially that of servant to master. He is allowed to speak with the brusque Other only briefly and at specified times. Piranesi, though, is content. Plus, he is aiding The Other in the search for a “Great and Secret Knowledge.” Piranesi is essentially Robinson Crusoe, if the latter had little desire for the company of others. Piranesi needs The Other for occasional supplies and food items, but where he gets things that don’t seem to be in any of the halls mildly perplexes Piranesi.

 

One day, Piranesi briefly spies another person he calls “16.” (Also the number of the other Piranesi’s prisons.) He does not approach him because The Other has warned that “16” is dangerous and will make him insane. Piranesi does, however, expand his exploration of The House, discovers other journals, and finds messages that baffle and intrigue. At this point, things take an ominous turn. Before the book concludes, the novel veers into subjects such as rituals, magical incantations, transgressive behavior, pseudo-science, and the biographies and fates of the 13 whose bones Piranesi lovingly tends. There are other issues and mysteries as well, but to enumerate them would reveal too much.

 

Piranesi is, to evoke Monty Python, a “now for something completely different” novel. Clarke’s is one of the more creative mash-ups I’ve encountered in some time. Her novel is evocative of Neal Gaiman’s Neverwhere as filtered through Greek mythology, Plato, C. S. Lewis, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung. It dislocates readers and sends them down the same twisty paths as its central character. After all, we are reminded, Piranesi is “a name associated with labyrinths.” In this case, we also relate it to child-like innocence. Add John Milton to the list of inspirations. In case you can’t recall why that name is famous, he wrote Paradise Lost.

 

Rob Weir

2/8/21

Everywhere You Don't Belong

 

 


 

EVERYWHERE YOU DON’T BELONG (2020)

By Gabriel Bump

Algonquin Books, 288 pages.

★★★

 

Claude is a young black man raised by his grandmother and her partner Paul–more she than he, who is a bumbling gasbag–on the South Side of Chicago. Claude is a straight arrow in a quiver full of Windy City bad news. 

 

 His early education in a Catholic school vanishes when grandma has it out with the nuns. The city’s public schools and neighborhoods induce the feeling that Chicago is a place where he doesn’t belong. He gets along with most of the cast on the streets–people with handles such as Nugget, Bubbly, Teeth­–but he’s also aware of the drugs, gangs, and bullies. Claude is more of a principled appeaser than a fighter, which leads to conflict when he informs “Principal Big Ass,” as he’s been dubbed, that star high school basketball George Burns routinely beats him up and won’t back down on his accusation, though it means Burns is off the team. You can imagine Claude’s social isolation after that.

 

The Chicago sections of the book are set when Barack Obama has just been elected to the U.S. Senate. I don’t know if author Gabriel Bump intended a critique of how the South Side was ignored, but one certainly doesn’t get a sense of much being done to help folks there, quite a few of whom vanish in one way of another. One player on the streets is “Big Columbus,” a drug dealer and key member of the violent Red Belters gang, but also a community activist, Still another is local sports star Chester Drexler, who goes to fabulous parties outside the ‘hood and always has a bevy of attractive young women around him. One of them, Janice, takes a fancy to Claude. The alternative to Big Columbus is Baggs, a white cop into community policing–until he isn’t.

 

The crunch comes during a street protest led by Big Columbus that clashes with the Chicago police. If you know anything about Chicago, you know that its police are better at cracking skulls than defusing tension. What do you do if, like Claude and Janice, you are literally caught in the middle of a riot pitting a gang versus the police? Or a situation in which cops choke to death a 14-year-old they falsely thought was stealing? Maybe get out of Dodge? As Claude observes, “people coming and going, valuable things left in a hurry.”

 

Claude decides to become one of the people “going.” Everywhere You Don’t Belong is a novel in three acts, Chicago, Missouri, and points unknown. When it’s time for college, Claude decides to major in journalism at a school in Missouri. If he didn’t belong in Chicago, imagine how out of place he is in a backwater town in the Show-Me State. What is shown mostly is white privilege and arrogance. Claude is uncomfortable with the inanity of college life, the piggish behavior of white males, the gibberish from one of his professors, and the fact that he and another black student are always asked to write “black” stories. After all, Obama has just been elected president, so they can speak for African Americans, right? Umm… Claude doesn’t relate to much about his past life, which is why he’s in Missouri in the first place.

 

Janice reappears, but brings trouble with her. Much of the last part of the novel involves capers and chases that flush Claude from Missouri and send both he and Janet on the road. Where’s a good place to be if everywhere is a place you don’t belong? This part of the novel reminded me a bit too much of clich├ęd Hollywood on-the-lam films.

 

Kudos to Bump for presenting black urban life as multivalent and for presenting Missouri rednecks and Chicago Red Belters as cut from the same indifferent-to-human life cloth. His is a solid debut offering, even when Bump leans too heavily on formulae. Not everything coheres. Though the two novels differ in content, Bump’s look at street life lacks the vividness or tension-cracking humorous digressions of James McBride’s Deacon King. Bump gives us three mood shifts­ related to where Claude finds himself: Chicago, Missouri, and in flight. The first two work, but the third feels disconnected, as its tone shifts from psychological to atavistic.

 

Overall, though, Bump’s novel is an attention-grabbing book. Although I am white, I grew up working-class poor and moved up in status. That often means feeling ill at ease in both blue-collar and bourgeois company. Everywhere You Don’t Belong is a wonderful title and I’m sure many readers will relate to its central dilemma.

 

Rob Weir