Exploring Radical Empathy in the Movies of 2020

In 2020, films asked us to look at unconventional ways we can connect with people when they need it most.

Never rarely sometimes always empathy in movies of 2020
Focus Features

This article is part of our 2020 RewindFollow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we explore three standout films released in 2020 that utilize an extreme and powerful degree of empathy for their characters.


This year was, to put it mildly, unconventional. I’ll save the preamble about the trials and tribulations of existing in 2020 and just say that it’s no surprise that films also had to adapt to a new reality. Although most of this year’s releases were made earlier, many have resonated for the unintentional ways they tapped into a collective psyche.

Fittingly, in a strange year, the films that emotionally stuck the landing were also quite unusual. Standouts include a drama that extends care towards a character denied it too long, another that examines grief with no holds barred, and another that, quite simply, understands the importance of friendship and baked goods.

Even when working with vastly different narratives, these films are united by the ways they strive for compassion towards their characters. A case in point is Eliza Hittman‘s stunningly subtle Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always.

It follows Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a teenager from rural Pennsylvania who scrapes together the funds necessary to go to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) in order to have an abortion. It’s a fairly straightforward narrative, with subdued, naturalistic performances, and an unvarnished aesthetic. The film’s true complexities are unfurled in the ways it offers dignity to Autumn through its formal elements while that dignity is too frequently denied in her narrative.

Autumn’s silence speaks volumes, and early on in the film, it’s implied that she’s adapted to survive the stiflingly oppressive world around her. The fleeting scenes spent in her home indicate that her mother and step-father are at best distracted and uncaring. It’s a set up that immediately invites sympathy. She’s young, with few resources, trapped in a situation beyond her control. The film’s restrained technique can come across as stark, but there’s one key scene where Hittman’s unflinching vision comes into full view.

When the two girls reach New York, Autumn sits down for an intake exam at a Brooklyn Planned Parenthood. The nurse calmly and with compassion asks her a series of questions for Autumn to answer with one of the four eponymous responses. Again, the character’s silence is key, and it’s often the questions Autumn doesn’t want to answer that reveal the pain she’s endured and the violence that’s been perpetrated against her. While the exact circumstances that led to her pregnancy are never made explicit, it is clear that her sexual experiences have not been pleasant ones.

As Autumn delivers her answers, the camera remains stationary and in close proximity to her as the scene unfolds mostly in one shot, achieving two seemingly conflicting effects. On one hand, it’s stifling. The camera is so close to her, there’s no escape. She’s firmly trapped in the frame without so much as a cut to give her a break from the camera’s gaze.

On the other hand, there’s an incredibly freeing form of care that is briefly afforded to Autumn. It’s clear that she is not a character accustomed to sharing with others. She’s learned to keep her problems buried, to not attract the attention of others for fear of harm, and to deal with any issues on her own. Even with her cousin, she shares very little. In this scene, for the first time in a long time, someone is listening to her.

We don’t need to know the all details of Autumn’s past. We need to listen, intently, to what she’s willing to share. By narrowing the scope to a single shot, Hittman’s direction and Flanigan’s phenomenally intuitive performance allow for nothing to distract from the importance of this moment. While there’s a lot of pain in Autumn’s story, in this scene, Hittman’s camera offers her a brief moment of solace.

Comfort and compassion, for Autumn, can come from unexpected places, but while the source may be atypical, it’s no less important. A similar sentiment is deftly explored in one of the year’s most underrated features, the unclassifiable Finnish film Dogs Don’t Wear Pants

The film follows Juha (Pekka Strang), a surgeon who lost his wife some years ago. As fate would have it, Juha quite literally stumbles into the dungeon of dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosonen) and, in doing so, sets off a chain of events that will change, reshape, and reaffirm his life. Juha utilizes Mona’s service as a way to feel something — anything, even if it’s pain.

The captivating rhythms and toe-curling highpoints of the film are too good to spoil, so let’s just say this is a film that knows how to push the envelope. But make no mistake, although its squirmish moments make the headline, at its core this a film bursting with tender love and tentative optimism.

The two central performances are brilliantly realized. Strang perfectly toes the line as a widower clinging to a sense of normality long since taken from him, who is also ready to dive headfirst into a world of pain. Kosonen is wonderfully restrained as Mona and though we’re ostensibly following Juha, it falls to her to convey the true heart of the film.

Mona enjoys her job. Or, rather, jobs. By day she’s a physical therapist and by night she’s… also kind of a physical therapist. The two sides of the same coin occupation demonstrate that Mona is interested in how she can provide a service to others, whether that service is rehabbing a sports injury or ripping out a toenail. She doesn’t take sadistic joy from her work as a dominatrix. She’s controlled; her actions are measured and done with intent, not a sloppy bloodlust.

As the two characters’ stories become increasingly intertwined, the film takes on shockingly hopeful qualities. The film is about embracing pain, quite literally. But beyond that, it’s about holding space for the unconventional ways that people work through that which ails them. The process is messy, and for those gazing in from the outside, it’ll never look normal. But for those on the inside, those who slog through the thick of it and find ways to cope, there’s hope to be found in the strangest of places. As long as they’re not hurting anyone (without their consent), there is no wrong way to grieve.

While Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is a film that reveals itself to have a big heart, it comes with the qualifier that it’s not for everyone. On the gentler end of the empathetic spectrum, there’s this year’s biggest standout, the breathtaking and heartwrenching tale of Americana from Kelly ReichardtFirst Cow.

It follows two settlers in 19th century Oregon Territory: Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee). Each is an outcast in his own way, and the two band together at an outpost of fur trappers, a place where, as King-Lu states, history hasn’t arrived yet. This is a place and time where possibility looms large, where people believe they can still create new futures for themselves.

And that’s precisely what the two set out to do. Cookie has experience as a baker, and the fortuitous arrival of the eponymous bovine gives the men an idea. However, the cow, the first and only one in the area, is the property of a wealthy landowner. The men hatch a plan to sneak onto the farm at night, milk the cow, and use the milk for biscuits. The pastries are good enough to sell and it doesn’t take long for trappers to buy them out the following morning.

They explain the recipe as utilizing a Chinese secret, courtesy of Lu, effectively weaponizing the other settlers’ lack of knowledge about Lu’s home country against them. They buy it without question, simply grateful for the baked goods, and not too concerned about the methods of their creation.

In a film that often feels as if its warmth is radiating off the screen, some of the highlight moments are the small but revealing acts of care. As Cookie collects the milk, he speaks to the cow, soothing and comforting her with his words. These moments are beautifully gentle and succinctly emblematic of Cookie’s approach to the world around him. He views nature with reverence and affection, often taking his time to absorb even the smallest of details. It’s also fitting that the cow — billed as Eve — is a beautiful Jersey cow, with soulful eyes and nutmeg coloring. It’s easy to fall in love with her and even easier to see why Cookie cares so deeply for her.

There’s an incredible softness to his actions that speaks to both Magaro’s sensitive performance and Reichardt’s masterful command of tone. Even while the circumstances of covertly milking a cow creates tension, there’s a tranquility that never leaves the film.

With Reichardt’s signature tenderness in full display, the film is a beautiful portrait of friendship, fable-like in its simplicity and its rich depiction of the American dream. It also has bookended scenes that, much like the clinic scene in Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always speak to the power of the camera and the tension of what is being depicted and what we know of its context.

In an effort to not spoil the film (or the milk), let’s just say that there’s generous mercy in Reichardt’s choice of what she’ll communicate in context but refrain from showing directly. There’s a sublime and consistent kindness in the film that even extends to its final cut to black. That Reichardt was the film’s editor, in addition to its writer and director, is no surprise.

Indeed, kindness is a unifying factor in these three standouts this year. Although their plots have little in common, Never, Rarely, Sometimes, AlwaysDogs Don’t Wear Pants, and First Cow all share a deep compassion for their characters and convey the importance of striving to care for others. These aren’t just stories about empathy, they are films that utilize subtle gestures, stationary cameras, and swift cuts as expressions of kindness. And they’re all the better for it.

Horror movie junkie, fan of Old Hollywood, defender of Grease 2.