Eliza Hittman is maybe my favorite American filmmaker right now working in what is probably my least-favorite mode of filmmaking. I honestly don't even know if that's a backhanded compliment or a sincere one. Her preferred aesthetic is Indie Film 101:  handheld cameras, a shitload of medium shots and medium close-ups, a plot that coalesces so slowly it almost doesn't, located in unadorned real-world spaces that aren't "sexy" in the ordinary movie, full of people inarticulately stumbling through their thoughts. Standard-issue purposefully artless naturalism on the Dardenne brothers model,, in other words, and after a couple of decades watching this style come to dominate American and European "serious" filmmaking, I am pretty confident that it has absolutely nothing new left to say. But the right director can still channel it into something that at makes some striking, honest observations, and Hittman has amply proven herself to be the right filmmaker, most recently with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a movie that does absolutely everything one assumes it would, and yet manages to be striking and insightful and, in a couple of moments, pretty damn emotionally roiling.

The film is pared down to the most austere essentials, starting exactly at the beginning, stopping exactly at the end, and giving us basically nothing at all that in any way distracts from the narrative core. 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is pregnant, and the small town in Pennsylvania where she lives isn't really equipped to help her get an abortion without her parents finding out (state law requires parental permission for the surgery), so she and her cousin Skylar (Talia Rider) pool their resources to take a bus to New York City, where they struggle to stay safe on a budget while Autumn goes to the clinic for a consultation, and then a treatment, and then an unexpected next-day follow-up treatment that the pair wasn't prepared to deal with.

It's as straightforward as message movies get: it's horrible that a teenage girl has to go to these lengths to get a legal medical procedure, and we had better be in a constant state of low-grade terror at what's going to happen to her if she's not constantly on alert for all of the overtly and subtly predatory men haunting the great big city. But it's also not just a message movie. It's a snapshot of a few days in the life of two pointedly ordinary teenagers as they go on their first adult adventure, with barely any planning or expectations for what challenges are about to face them. And much of what is best about the film is at the confluence of these two things, little moments that find Autumn and Skylar blindsided and terrified and still managing to scrape through whatever event has befallen them: a fight between the two that begins quietly and ends in total silence, with the reconciliation between the two coming entirely in the form of a little head nod; a close-up of their pinky fingers linked in a gesture of solidarity in the face of a bleak, filthy, ugly world. And this is the sort of thing where Hittman's gift for navigating this by-the-books approach to filmmaking really shows up, because she and editor Scott Commings know just when to go in for those closer angles, punctuating moments that are staged well enough, but really become great because of little accent marks that guide our attention and control the pace of the scenes.

And then, in the film's very best scene, Hittman goes all the way the other direction, eschewing editing at all for a merciless long-take medium close-up of Flanigan, fielding medical and personal history questions from a pleasant but detached, businesslike social worker, who asks increasingly intimate questions, always ending in the litany, "never, rarely, sometimes, always?" And Flanigan's face is the whole of the movie for this long scene, first blandly patient, then annoyed, then washed with unspoken pain when the questions cut too close to the bone (have you been hit by a partner, have you been pressured into sex). It's the one place where Hittman returns, triumphantly, to the filmmaking truism she used so persistently in her last film, Beach Rats: nothing is more cinematic than the human face.

Less enthusiastically, this sequence is also the closest we ever come to learning anything about what's going on inside Autumn's head, and this gets us to the film's fairly stark limitations. Beach Rats is a good comparison point, I think, because the two films end up being pretty close in quality, for different reasons. That film was all about digging into its protagonist's head, trying figure out every single thing that's bothering him, why he's making the choices he makes, and understanding his confusion about life and the world; and then it goes to hell in a really messy third act. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is entirely objective, focusing monomaniacally on what Autumn and Skylar do, but refusing to operate on any other level than pure observation. This leads to an admirable lack of any melodrama, which I assume is why Hittman took this approach; it makes the film entirely about the ordeal the girls face without any hint of sensationalism or sentiment, staring with clinical anger at the ridiculous effort the are obliged to put in to achieve their single goal. But this comes at a somewhat perilous lack of context, character depth, or even simply drama: the film never transcends the feeling that it's just a long chain of individual scenes which stitch together only because they take place in chronological order. It's the realism thing, of course, but after a while, it becomes at least slightly annoying that the film keeps abandoning its most intense emotional material for scenes of the teens just hanging out in New York - particularly after Autumn's procedure, which appears to have both the physical and emotional impact of a trip to the mailbox.

Even that's less frustrating than how little we learn about Autumn. We get little hints in the title scene, and we see just enough of her home life to know how miserable it is (though I would not, from the evidence onscreen, be prepared to tell you if the abrasive man in her kitchen is her dad, her stepdad, or her mom's boyfriend), but it's all kind of generic. And so, despite the precision with which Hittman and Flanigan depict her behavior, is Autumn herself; it's sometimes easy to say what she feels about what's going on, but virtually never what she thinks about it, and this makes her feel less like a character than a prop, in a whole movie of props (the closest the film ever comes to depicting something idiosyncratic to have a personality is in its odd opening scene at a talent show, where everybody other than Autumn is doing a pastiche of '50s pop culture for some reason. This has nothing to do with anything that follows).

So a more consistent movie than Beach Rats, with a more confidently-expressed relationship to the things it's depicting and what it wants us to do with them; but it has less interiority and less specificity - that is to say, it has many moments that feel very specific indeed, but they feel specific at the level of "this is what every single 17-year-old girl in this moment would experience in a very detailed way", not "this is what this particular 17-year-old &c." Perhaps this is in service the film's themes, I cannot say; but it does leave me feeling removed from the film, which comes across as a bit coolly intellectual in ways that don't serve the material (the obvious point of comparison is the Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which is no less intellectual while being far more expressive). Still, it's a tight piece of filmmaking with a focused, nuanced lead performance, and it enshrines Hittman as a director I will very eagerly follow without necessarily expecting to ever love her movies.