Review: ‘InHospitable,’ starring Vicki Arnett, Beth McCracken, Evie Bodick, Chelsa Wagner, Erin Ninehouser, Maurice Arnett and Natasha Lindstrom

November 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Beth McCracken (center, in white shirt) in “InHospitable” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)


Directed by Sandra Alvarez

Culture Representation: Filmed in 2019 and 2020, in Pennsylvania and Atlanta, the documentary “InHospitable” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians), who are healthcare experts or hospital patients, discussing how profit-oriented business decisions from hospitals can be detrimental to the health care of patients.

Culture Clash: The documentary tells the personal stories of some patients in Pennsylvania who were affected by a business feud between healthcare companies University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and Highmark.

Culture Audience: “InHospitable” will primarily appeal to people who are interested in behind-the-scenes revelations of how hospitals actively play a role in the rising costs of healthcare in the United States.

Vicki Arnett in “InHospitable” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“InHospitable” is an unsettling but necessary warning to anyone concerned about U.S. health care. This enlightening documentary shows what can happen when non-profit hospitals act like greedy corporations that care more about profits than patients. Although “InHospitable” focuses on a healthcare problem in the Pittsburgh/western Pennsylvania area, the documentary makes it clear that this is a problem that can happen to any region of the United States and can affect millions of people.

Directed by Sandra Alvarez, “InHospitable,” which was filmed in 2019 and 2020, puts a spotlight on a business feud between healthcare companies University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and Highmark. Both are non-profit groups that generate millions in profits every year. UPMC and Highmark own and operate hospitals and have their own insurance companies. UPMC is the largest employer in Pennsylvania.

In 2013, Highmark made a big move to compete with the virtual monopoly that UPMC had in the hospital business in Pennsylvania: Highmark made a $1 billion purchase of West Penn Allegheny Health System, thereby greatly increasing the number of hospitals that Highmark owned in Pennsylvania. In response, UPMC announced that it would no longer accept patients who had Highmark health insurance. This decision caused tremendous turmoil for Highmark-insured patients being treated at UPMC hospitals but couldn’t afford any other health insurance. And so, in 2014, Pennsylvania’s governor and state attorney intervened and negotiated a five-year contract, which was also called a “consent decree,” that had UPMC and Highmark essentially agree to not to deny health care to each other’s patients.

“InHospitable” mostly chronicles the months leading up to July 2019, when the contract was due to expire. Untold numbers of Highmark-insured patients treated at UPMC hospitals were starting to panic over losing their healthcare services at UPMC. Grassroots groups began to have town hall meetings and protests to bring attention to this healthcare crisis and demand that lawmakers and healthcare company officials do something about it.

The documentary focuses on three middle-aged people in particular who were affected by this healthcare crisis and participated in this activism. All of them had Highmark insurance but received healthcare from UPMC. The three activists who are featured prominently in “InHospitable” are:

  • Vicki Arnett (a nurse who worked for UPMC), the caregiver of her husband Maurice Arnett, a patient with cancer of the liver and colon.
  • Evie Bodick, a patient who says she had breast cancer and lung cancer twice and has a pacemaker.
  • Beth McCracken, a patient with a rare form of cancer that has caused her face to have partial paralysis.

The health insurance situation got so bad for Vicki and Maurice Arnett, the closest cancer treatment center they could find that would take their Highmark insurance was in Atlanta. The documentary shows the couple going to Atlanta for an appointment at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Vicki mentions that although the couple had to pay for the travel expenses out of their limited budget, the overall cost would have been higher if Maurice had to get the cancer treatment outside of the Highmark insurance network.

Bodick mentions that she has five different doctors at UPMC, and to change these doctors would be detrimental to her recovery. In a documentary interview, Bodick says at one point in her life, she was given just six months to live, but she defied those expectations, because she said the UPMC doctors helped save her life. Bodick wants to do whatever it takes to keep those doctors with the Highmark insurance that she has.

McCracken says that if she can’t use her Highmark insurance at UPMC, her insurance premium would be six times higher and her deductible would be 20 times higher than the amount that she has to pay through her Highmark insurance. McCracken says in a documentary interview: “My fight to maintain my health care has robbed me of the strength to care for my health … We should not have to choose between bankruptcy and health care.”

“InHospitable” explains through interviews with experts and statistical data why this problem exists. The documentary includes a brief history of how the U.S. hospital industry has evolved. There are three types of hospitals in the U.S.: non-profit hospitals (which are the majority, at 56.5%, according to 2019 stats from the American Hospital Association); for-profit hospitals (24.9%); and government-owned hospitals (18.6%). Non-profit hospitals have tax-exempt status on many things, under the condition that they give certain services to underprivileged people, like a charity is supposed to do.

Several healthcare economists who are interviewed in the documentary say that the problem is that non-profit hospitals get very little government regulation on how they spend their money. Non-profit hospitals are starting to act more like for-profit corporations, such as buying up the competition and forcing a near-monopoly of hospital health care in some areas. When a money-making group doesn’t have much competition, the tendency is to charge more money to the customers (in this case, the patients), who see the higher costs through an increase in insurance fees.

In other words, gone are the days when most hospitals were small charities. “This is a big, big business,” says Martin Graynor, a healthcare economist at Carnegie Mellon University. Graynor says that part of the reason why hospitals have become bigger and more expensive is because of technology, as hospitals compete to have the latest and most hi-tech equipment, which could affect their hospital ratings. Georgia State University’s Center for Law, Healthy and Safety director Erin Fuse Brown offers another explanation: “Hospital consolidation is the number-one driver of rising prices.”

The U.S. healthcare industry makes billions in profits. Darrell Gaskin, a healthcare economist at Johns Hopkins University, comments on how non-profits changed their business models: “What used to be a cost center now becomes a revenue and profit center.” But at what cost?

The documentary (which includes some eye-catching animation to illustrate the health industry issues) shows that although the United States spends more on health care per person than any other developed country in the world, a person’s life expectancy in the U.S. is the lowest (about 77 years old) for any developed country in the world. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) statistics from 2019, which are cited in the documentary, the U.S. spends about $10,586 per person per year on health care, compared to the second-highest spending country: Germany, which spends about $5,986 (in U.S. dollars) per person per year.

The implication is that people who benefit the most from health care in the U.S. are those who can afford the increasing costs. Everyone else might not get the health care that they need, which could explain the lower life expectancy. Either way, the cost-to-benefit ratio is still alarming if the results are lower life expectancies. “InHospitable” shows through real people’s stories how health insurance should be not be a business game played by greedy hospitals, because the very real consequences are that people will die if they can’t get the health care that they need if they can’t afford it.

Emily Gee, a healthcare economist for the Center of American Progress, says in the documentary: “Pittsburgh is a great example of what happens when most of the health insurance and resources get locked up into two competing firms. And I think these companies have less and less accountability.”

How did hospitals get so much unchecked power? Fuse Brown says, “Healthcare systems escape a lot of scrutiny because they are very politically powerful.” Federal Trade Commission commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter comments, “Whenever we’re talking about political power and political influence, we cannot ignore the way our extremely broken campaign finance system affects decision making.” The documentary includes a statistic from a 2019 report from the Center for Responsive Politics that the U.S. healthcare industry spent $603 million in 2019 in U.S. political lobbying—more than any other industry.

What does that mean for the average person who’s experiencing a damaging problem such as having their health insurance no longer accepted by the place where they need to get medical treatment? “InHospitable” shows what several grassroots activists and their supporters did about the UPMC/Highmark problem in Pennsylvania in 2019. This footage is at the heart of the film.

In addition to having town hall meetings and peaceful protest rallies to persuade UPMC and Highmark to not let the two companies’ “consent decree” expire, activists enlisted the support of politician allies, such as Allegheny County controller Chelsa Wagner and Pennsylvania state representative Sara Innamorato, Summer Lee and Ed Gaines. “InHospitable” includes footage of these citizens meeting with lawmakers in the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg. The documentary also shows other people who helped bring attention to this problem, including Pennsylvania Health Access Network patient advocate Erin Ninehouser and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Natasha Lindstrom.

“InHospitable” brings up the issue of racial and socioeconomic inequalities in U.S. healthcare, by mentioning how UPMC shut down its only hospital in Pittsburgh’s Braddock borough (which is populated by mostly African Americans, many of them low-income) in 2009. UMPC’s official reason for the shutdown was that the hospital wasn’t making enough money, which contradicts the main purpose of a non-profit. However, UPMC opened up a new hospital called UPMC East in a more affluent, mostly white neighborhood at a cost that was higher than it would have cost to keep UPMC’s Braddock hospital open.

Chuck Grassley, a U.S. Senator from Iowa, comments in the documentary: “The I.R.S. ought to be policing whether the non-profit organizations are really being non-profit, and are they carrying out the responsibilities under non-profit [laws].” Zack Cooper, a healthcare economist at Yale University, says that most healthcare economists believe many of these healthcare affordiability problems would be better solved if the U.S. government had better regulation of non-profit hospital finances.

In the meantime, “InHospitable” gives a very powerful chronicle of how everyday people in western Pennsylvania stood up for their rights against what seemed like big-business odds stacked against them. Vicki Arnett and Bodick are particularly passionate and outspoken when they speak to a crowd. If the documentary singles out any “villain,” it’s Jeffrey Ronoff, the CEO of UPMC. Bodick doesn’t mince words by saying that much of the UPMC problem with Highmark was caused “by his greed … This is a nightmare for people.” Ronoff declined to be interviewed for “InHospitable,” but the documentary includes some archival video clips of interviews that he did in 2009 and 2015.

An epilogue in “InHospitable” mentions that major non-profit healthcare groups—including UPMC, Highmark and the American Hospital Association (AHA) declined or did not respond to requests to participate in the documentary. AHA referred the “InHospitable” filmmakers to Charles River Associates, a consulting firm hired by the AHA to conduct a study on hospital consolidation. Charles River Associates executives Monica Noether and Sean May, who are interviewed in the documentary, say that consolidation exists to lower costs. But “InHospitable” questions if those lower costs are actually passed down to the patients.

The documentary also mentions that after hospital consolidations, the hospital’s non-management employees typically experience salaries decreases. (By contrast, upper-management employees at non-profit hospitals usually experience salary increases after hospital consolidations.) One of the highlights of the film is footage from a protest outside UPMC Montefiore over these lower wages and UPMC’s Highmark insurance ban. Another standout part of the documentary shows how protestors peacefully demanded to attend a UPMC Montefiore board meeting, even when officials decided at the last moment that only those who RSVP’ed would be able to attend.

Other people interviewed or featured in the documentary include medical doctor Elisabeth Rosenthal, author of “An American Sickness”; medical doctor Robert Pearl, former CEO of the Permanente Group; Ginny Bell, who is McCracken’s wife; Joe Bodick, who is Evie Bodick’s husband; Braddock resident/documentarian Tony Buba; Pat Busu, former White House advisor/co-founder of Doctor on Demand; cardiologist Dale Owen, CEO of Tyron Medical Partners; UPMC Presbyterian adminstrative assistant Nila Payton; medical doctor Farzad Mostashari, CEO and primary care expert at Aledade.

Sadly, one of the patients in “InHospitable” did not live to see this documentary released. Maurice Arnett passed away on May 8, 2020, at the age of 54. As much information that “InHospitable” packs in about the healthcare industry, the documentary never loses sight of the real people who are directly affected by healthcare industry problems.

“InHospitable” includes the outcome of the UPMC/Highmark conflict in 2019, and has additional footage from 2020 that addresses the COVID-19 pandemic. However, do not mistake “InHospitable” as a documentary that will become outdated, because it is a foreshadowing of what more people in America will experience if more hospitals make health insurance become a hindrance, not a help, to people who need health care.

Abramorama released “InHospitable” in select U.S. cinemas on September 30, 2022.

Review: ‘Killian & the Comeback Kids,’ starring Taylor A. Purdee

April 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Yael Elisheva, Andrew O’Shanick, Emily Mest, Shannon O’Boyle, Shane Andries, Taylor A. Purdee and John Donchak in “Killian & the Comeback Kids” (Photo courtesy of Hope Runs High Films)

“Killian & the Comeback Kids”

Directed by Taylor A. Purdee

Culture Representation: Taking place in Easton, Pennsylvania, the dramatic film “Killian & the Comeback Kids” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After graduating from college, a struggling folk-rock musician reluctantly moves back in with his parents, and he puts together a band so that they can perform at an upcoming high-profile music festival.

Culture Audience: “Killian & the Comeback Kids” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching movies about independent artists who follow their dreams, despite obstacles that get in their way.

Emily Mest, John Donchak, Yael Elisheva and Taylor A. Purdee in “Killian & the Comeback Kids” (Photo courtesy of Hope Runs High Films)

Some of the acting in “Killian & the Comeback Kids” is amateurish and stilted, but this heartfelt drama about obscure folk-rock musicians has enough realistic scenarios and engaging performances that are worth watching. The music in “Killian & the Comeback Kids” is also enjoyable and blends well into the movie, which could have come across as just a feature-length music video. Instead, there’s a meaningful but still predictable story of the struggles that independent artists face when they have a hard time getting paid for doing what they love.

“Killian & the Comeback Kids” (which takes place in Easton, Pennsylvania) is the feature-film directorial debut of real-life musician Taylor A. Purdee, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay, is the star of the film, and is one of the movie’s producers and composers. He previously directed short films and music videos. That experience shows, especially in how the musical performances are appealingly filmed. The movie is loosely based on Purdee’s own real-life experiences as an independent musician who hails from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

In “Killian & the Comeback Kids,” Purdee is Killian Raison, a folk-rock musician in his mid-20s who has recently graduated from college with a degree in music and music business, but he has to move back in with his parents because he can’t find a job. Killian’s father (played by Nathan Purdee, Taylor’s real-life father) and Killian’s mother (played by Kassie Wesley DePaiva), who both do not have first names in the movie, encourage him to be creative, but they don’t expect Killian to be an unemployed freeloader for an extended period of time. Killian doesn’t want that either.

In fact, he’s a little embarrassed about not having enough financial independence to have his own place. Killian also feels somewhat disillusioned because, after getting a well-earned degree from an unnamed prestigious university, finding work has been a lot more difficult than he thought it would be. Killian’s sister Rowan (played by Genesis McCaulley), who’s about 10 or 11 years old, has a very good relationship with Killian and is happy that he’s back in the household.

Killian’s parents are generally supportive of what he wants to do with his life, but they worry that Killian could be wasting time pursuing a career in music when he could be considering other career options. To make matters worse, Easton is a working-class city that’s experiencing an economic slump. It’s the type of town where steel mills used to employ lot of people, but most of those steel mills have closed or downsized. Killian remarks soon after moving back to Easton that the town square “used to be more bustling, even four years ago.”

To make some extra cash, Killian starts busking in the town square with his acoustic guitar. While performing to mostly indifferent people passing by, Killian encounters a former classmate from his high school. His name is Sam Amico (played by John Donchak), who also recently graduated from college and is back in Easton. Sam (who’s quiet and socially awkward) and Killian make some small talk about their former classmates from high school. When Sam leaves, Killian comments to himself about Sam: “Such a weird guy.”

Although some people in Killian’s life advise him to get a “real job,” what Killian really wants to do is make a living out of writing and performing his music. Killian has big plans to go on tour with his musical partner Ben (played by Liam Higgins), who was his college roommate. They perform as a duo, with Ben as the singer and Killian as the guitarist/songwriter.

But those tour plans fall apart when Ben backs out of the tour to take a more stable and higher-paying job as an A&R executive at a record company. Ben says of his decision: “It’s a whole new world, and we’ll put something together once we’ve settled into real life. It’s the smart move.”

These words do little to comfort Killian, who knows that Ben is probably going to stay in this A&R job and not go back to making music with Killian. With no tour and no immediate way to make money, Killian mopes around and wallows in a little self-pity before he decides to shake it off and try to overcome this obstacle. It’s this “can do” attitude that is one of the defining characteristics of Killian’s personality.

Killian and Sam were never really close friends in high school, where Sam had the unflattering nickname Clammy Sammy because of his reputation for having clammy hands and being a little bit of an outcast weirdo. However, Killian knows that Sam is a talented sound engineer. And so, Killian decides he’ll take a chance and ask Sam if Sam wants to work with Killian in music.

Killian invites Sam out for drinks at a local bar, where Killian tells Sam about his predicament of losing Ben as a musical collaborator. Killian also tells Sam that he wants to form another music act, but he doesn’t want to be the frontman/singer for his next band. Sam asks Killian why Killian shouldn’t be a lead singer, since he would be singing his own songs. Killian can’t really come up with a good answer to that question. And you know what that means: Killian will eventually start singing lead vocals for his next band.

In the meantime, the name of another former classmate comes up in this conversation: Rose Jackson (played by Shannon O’Boyle), who was known for being an excellent singer in school. And so, Rose is approached to be the singer for this fledgling band, and she says yes. Sam is already on board as the band’s sound engineer. Rose (who is outgoing and confident) and Sam (who is shy and nerdy) end up connecting emotionally during the course of the story and have an “opposites attract” romance.

One day, Killian sees an online ad for a music contest sponsored by the fictional streaming service Pandorify, an obvious play on words of Pandora and Spotify. The contest is open to Lehigh Valley artists, and the winner will get to perform at Fest, which is an annual high-profile music festival in Easton. The winner’s pay isn’t much ($5,000 for the winner’s performance), but the publicity and exposure for performing at Fest is even more valuable. This contest further fuels Killian’s ambition to form a band in time to enter this contest.

Killian tries to recruit more members for his band. Most of the people he asks already know Killian from his high school days. Emmett (played by Dylan Côté) has a day job as a manager at clothing retailer American Eagle. He’s skeptical about joining this band and tells Killian: “I don’t know what you’ve been up to for the last four years, but I’ve been trying to start a life.” Emmett ultimately declines the offer, and so do other people who are approached by Killian.

A drummer named Tristan (played by Shane Andries) is even harder than Emmett to approach, because Tristan has “hated” Killian since Tristan was 9 years old. However, Tristan (who is also living with his parents) isn’t doing much with his life, and he wants to be a professional musician. And so, whatever childhood animosity he toward Killian, he puts it aside to join the band.

Killian still needs more people in the band to fulfill his vision for what he wants his music to sound like when performed live. Killian holds some auditions that are open to the public, so the movie has an expected montage of no-talents and misfits doing failed auditions. It’s like the filmmakers took the worst real-life auditions from “American Idol” and decided to spoof them in the movie for some comic relief.

Eventually, through recommendations, Killian finds the rest of the people who join the band’s lineup: bass player Josh (played Andrew O’Shanick), singer/guitarist Melanie (played by Emily Mest) and singer/guitarist Therese (played by Yael Elisheva). Killian and Rose are the lead singers, while Tristan is the drummer. Rose is the one who thinks of the band’s name: Killian & the Comeback Kids.

Of course, things don’t go as smoothly as expected for this new band. There’s a major roadblock that happens, which leads to a very “hey kids, let’s put on a show” turn of events that’s somewhat corny, but somehow it works just fine in this movie. And in case anyone thinks this movie is all about young people, a few of the band members’ fathers (including Killian’s dad and Tristan’s dad) used to be musicians, so they have their moments to shine.

The movie’s soundtrack songs for “Killian & the Comeback Kids” are performed by Taylor A. Purdee and his real-life band the Cumberland Kids. Taylor A. Purdee and Higgins (another member of the Cumberland Kids) wrote the songs and musical score, with standout tunes that include “Where We Should Be Today” and “Weightless in the Flood.” A lot of people who see this movie will come away as new fans of this band.

“Killian & the Comeback Kids” has some authentic moments that depict the frustrations of independent artists who often have to choose between turning their creative pursuits into a career (which is time-consuming and often doesn’t pay well) or taking a safer career route by getting a more stable job. The movie also shows the reality that many recent college graduates experience of having to move back in with parents because they can’t find work, even though people have been taught to believe that a college degree makes someone more likely to find a job.

Where the movie needed improvement is in some parts of the screenplay and editing, which can at times (but fortunately, not too often) give off a “student film” vibe. However, the scrappy independent nature of the film actually fits well with the story, which is about a scrappy independent band. Writer/director Taylor A. Purdee, who is more charismatic as a musician than as an actor, gives enough depth to the other characters in the band so that the movie doesn’t look like a complete vanity project.

Overall, the pacing of the movie is good enough, with a few fleeting moments that drag with monotony. For a low-budget film, it’s a solid and admirable effort. Is “Killian & the Comeback Kids” the type of movie that will change audiences’ lives? No, but it’s entertaining in most of the right ways, even if the way it’s presented isn’t always professionally polished.

Hope Runs High Films released “Killian & the Comeback Kids” in select U.S. cinemas on September 18, 2020. The movie was re-released in select U.S. cinemas on September 17, 2021. “Killian & the Comeback Kids” will be released on digital and VOD on August 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always,’ starring Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder

March 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sidney Flanigan in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Directed by Eliza Hittman

Culture Representation: Taking place in rural Pennsylvania and New York City, the dramatic film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” about a 17-year-old who gets an abortion, has a predominantly white cast with some representation of African Americans.

Culture Clash: The teenager seeking the abortion doesn’t want to tell her parents, so she travels from her native Pennsylvania to New York, where adult permission isn’t required to get an abortion.

Culture Audience: “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will appeal mostly to people who like well-written, well-acted independent films and are concerned about reproductive rights.

Sidney Flanigan in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

When viewers first see 17-year-old Autumn Gallagher (played by Sidney Flanigan) in the dramatic film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” she’s performing at a talent show at her high school in rural Pennsylvania. She’s on stage by herself, singing and playing an original song on acoustic guitar, with lyrics that include “He’s got the power of love me” and “He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” During her somewhat nervous performance, a guy around her same age shouts from the audience, “Slut!” She pauses briefly, with shock and embarrassment flashing across her face, and then continues the performance.

After the show, Autumn is eating at a local diner with her family—her mother (played by Sharon Van Etten), her stepfather (played by Ryan Eggold) and Autumn’s cousin/best friend/schoolmate Skylar (played by Talia Ryder). The conversation is tense, since Autumn and her stepfather do not get along, and her mother has to urge him to tell Autumn that she did a good job at the talent show.

Meanwhile, the same guy who rudely heckled her at the talent show is eating at a nearby table with some friends. He makes a sexually obscene gesture to Autumn. And she walks over to the table and throws a glass of water on him without saying a word before she leaves.

The quiet way that Autumn handles this problem is consistent with her personality, which is introverted and sometimes sullen. And when she finds out that she’s pregnant (the pregnancy is unplanned and unwanted), it’s no surprise that she wants to keep the pregnancy secret from her parents and she wants to get an abortion. Although it’s not explicitly stated in the film, it’s implied that the guy who heckled her is the father of her child. Whatever relationship she had with the guy, it has clearly ended.

Autumn finds out she’s pregnant by going to a “pregnancy crisis center,” and notices something odd: The woman who gives her the pregnancy test is using a test that can be bought at a drugstore. The female worker also discourages Autumn from getting an abortion and tells her about her options for having the baby. Autumn won’t find out until later that this place is not a real medical clinic, but a facility affiliated with a pro-life group.

When she goes to a real clinic, Autumn thinks she’s 10 weeks pregnant, based on what she was told at the “pregnancy crisis center.” But she’s gets a harsh shock when she finds out that she’s actually 18 weeks pregnant.  It takes a while for it to sink in to Autumn that the “pregnancy crisis center” mostly likely intentionally deceived her about her pregnancy term, so that if she decided to terminate the pregnancy, there would be a possibility that she would wait until it was too late to get a legal abortion.

After finding out about the pregnancy, Autumn becomes distracted and more emotionally withdrawn. Skylar notices right away that something is wrong, and so Autumn confides in her about being pregnant. Autumn has done her research on the Internet and found out that because she is under 18, she can’t get a legal abortion in Pennsylvania without signed permission from her parents. New York is the closest state to her where minors can get an abortion without needing adult permission, but Autumn doesn’t have the money to the take the trip and to get the abortion.

Autumn and Skylar work together as cashiers in a supermarket, where they are being sexually harassed by an unseen male supervisor. Every time they hand in their cash register’s money through a window at the end of their shift, the supervisor creepily kisses their hands, and the girls cringe in disgust. It’s perhaps why Skylar impulsively and somewhat gleefully steals some of the cash-register money one day to help pay for their bus trip to New York.

But when Autumn and Skylar get to New York City, what they thought would be a one-day trip has to be extended to two days, because New York state law requires a two-day process for abortions. Autumn and Skylar have to find an place to stay overnight that they can afford. Meanwhile, Autumn has insurance through her parents, but she doesn’t want the abortion to appear on their insurance records. So she has to pay for the abortion herself, which doesn’t leave enough money for the bus trip back home.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (written and directed by Eliza Hittman) takes viewers on a harrowing and poignant journey that avoids a lot of clichés about unplanned teen pregnancies. No one gets hysterical in the movie, and there’s no sympathetic adult who swoops in to help Autumn with her problem. Autumn’s quiet desperation is shown in heartbreaking moments, such as when she repeatedly punches her abdomen to try to induce a miscarriage. (Her bruises are seen when she gets an ultrasound at a real clinic.)

And in the movie’s most powerful scene (which inspired the film’s title), at the clinic in New York, Autumn is asked a series of questions about her personal life. The multiple choice answers are “never, rarely, sometimes, always.” Autumn’s emotionally painful reactions reveal some of the trauma that she’s experienced her her life.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” won a Special Grand Jury Award for Neorealism at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and the Silver Bear (second-place award) at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. The movie’s greatest strength is in not trying to be a story about extraordinary accomplishments (which is often the focus of many dramatic films) but by taking an unflinching look at the everyday turmoil and obstacles that someone like Autumn can face in trying to get a legal abortion for an unwanted pregnancy.

Flanigan and Ryder give utterly realistic performances that also show the importance of their friendship and family bond, which can be considered a bright spot in Autumn’s very bleak situation. And the directorial approach of Hittman is to tell the story in such an intimate way, that viewers will feel like almost like they’re watching from the viewpoint of a hidden camera.

Regardless of how someone might feel about abortion or which laws are in place, the reality of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies isn’t going to go away. The question that the movie puts forth is whether or not people under the age 18 have less rights in choosing when to become parents, and if they should have to go through more indignities and more restrictions to get safe and legal abortions. Autumn’s story is a cautionary tale on what can happen to someone in this situation. The toll that it takes isn’t limited to the person seeking an abortion but can have ripple effects on society at large.

Focus Features will release “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” in select U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the VOD release of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” to April 3, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Rewind’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Sasha Joseph Neulinger as a child in “Rewind” (Photo by John Solem)


Directed by Sasha Joseph Neulinger

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

It’s too bad that the documentary “Rewind” has a such a generic title, because this stunning debut from director Sasha Joseph Neulinger has so many important messages about complex family relationships and confronting your past that it delivers an emotional knockout to anyone who watches it. You would never know from this movie’s simple title how deep it goes in its raw and honest analysis of a family torn apart by secrets and lies—and how the family has tried to heal in the aftermath. However, it would reveal too many spoilers to go into specifics about who caused this family crisis.

What can be said about “Rewind” is that it’s a powerfully edited compilation of footage (mostly home videos) from Neulinger’s Pennsylvania childhood in the 1990s, when he went through horrific abuse. It’s best not to give away spoiler details to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, but it’s enough to say that the abuse was reported, and it involved court cases, which are chronicled in the last third of the film. The movie’s narrative gives the details, bit by bit (much like a puzzle), until the full scope of the horror is revealed.

It would’ve been easy for Neulinger to provide narrator voiceovers, explaining what he was thinking and feeling while you’re watching the footage. Instead, he lets the footage do most of the talking, in addition to doing new interviews with members of his family, the psychotherapy community, law enforcement and survivor advocate groups.

If you don’t know his story, watching the movie unfold is like watching a mystery where there’s a feeling of dread that bad things are going to happen to good people—and the sad part is that it’s not just a movie, because it happened in real life. You want to find out who committed the crimes, and for justice to be served.

The documentary is also a cautionary lesson for parents and others on how to spot signs of abuse. In addition, Neulinger hopes that this documentary will also improve the ways that police and other law enforcement interrogate children who report abuse. As explained at the end of the film, Neulinger is working with organizations such as Mission Kids that advocate for law enforcement to have better methods for getting victim statements in abuse cases. Neulinger and others believe that law enforcement should be required to videotape a main cohesive statement from an abuse survivor, instead of forcing the survivor to relive the trauma with repeated interrogations because the first statement wasn’t properly documented.

“Rewind” is not an easy film to watch, but it’s an inspiring example of how someone can confront trauma and use the art of moviemaking as a form of therapy and as a way to help others.

UPDATE: FilmRise will release “Rewind” on digital and VOD on May 8, 2020. PBS will premiere “Rewind” as part of the “Independent Lens” series on May 11, 2020.

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