Never Rarely Sometimes Always
When high school student Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) gets her suspected pregnancy verified by a drugstore test at a local clinic, the only help she’s offered are pamphlets on adoption, the rights of the father and single motherhood. Sensing her distress, best friend and cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) takes charge, procuring cash and offering support for a secret trip to New York City, where an abortion can be performed without parental consent in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.”
Laura's Review: A-
With her third film, writer/director Eliza Hittman ("Beach Rats") has proven herself a real auteur, a filmmaker with the uncanny ability to project the inner turmoil of teenagers unable to voice it for themselves. Along with her cinematographer Hélène Louvart, Hittman closely observes Autumn in spaces familiar and not, newcomer Flanigan’s expressions and actions telling us everything we need to know - like the song she’s chosen to perform a high school talent show.
Alone on the stage, Autumn strums her guitar and sings ‘He’s Got the Power’ to an audience which includes her mom (singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten), young siblings and dour stepfather (Ryan Eggold, TV's 'The Blacklist,' 'New Amsterdam'). There’s also a male classmate who heckles her, receiving a drink in the face for his impertinence later at the restaurant where stepdad has put a damper on intended celebration. Hittman never clarifies who has impregnated her protagonist, but she gives us plenty to consider from the get go (like why Autumn is so clearly afraid to involve her seemingly hip and supportive mother in her predicament).
Throughout the film, male presences are either threatening or, when chivalry is clearly called for, disinterested, like the NYC subway attendant whose directions are curtly offered and attention turned away from the two young central Pennsylvania girls seeking help. During their bus ride, Skylar is hit upon by Jasper (Théodore Pellerin, "Boy Erased"), who refuses to be dismissed by her dismissively polite responses. The outgoing, vivacious Skylar, inward and brooding Autumn’s emotional opposite, gives the boy her cell number, a seemingly illogical move which later proves her resourcefulness. (A later experience on the New York City subway will be far more sinister.)
Every woman, on the other hand, is seen in supportive sisterhood (a mixed gender group of protestors in Manhattan can be seen as representing religious patriarchy). The local women’s clinic employees may be anti-abortion, but they are kind and otherwise non-judgmental. When Autumn makes it to her planned destination, a Brooklyn Planned Parenthood, the counselor there (on set social services consultant Kelly Chapman) couldn’t be a better advocate. It is she who guides Autumn through the questionnaire provided with the titular responses, gently exposing trauma if not details. It is she who offers to hold Autumn’s hand while an uncomfortable test is conducted. And it is she who offers to find shelter when Autumn learns that there is no way she will be able to return home that day, the term of her pregnancy more advanced than her local clinic indicated. Referred to a Manhattan clinic the next day, Autumn will find more supportive women to guide her, but in the interim, it is Skylar who will save the day.
Hittman doesn’t shy away from hard truths, like Autumn’s introductory song. When Skylar performs a makeshift douche in a public rest room, she tells the amused Autumn it is a ‘French whore’s bath.’ We are taken aback that the small town teen would even know such a term, but it paves the way for us to accept that Skylar would use her feminine wiles to procure their safety, the more worldly of the two. Flanigan and Ryder, both coincidentally newcomers from Buffalo, are compelling navigating the big city under increasingly harrowing circumstances, their opposing magnetisms testing but never breaking their bond.
With “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Hittman has laid bare the excruciating road too many women are forced to travel because of an everyday fact of life. We are all Autumn in the United States of America.
Robin's Review: B+
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is an intense 17-year old who has a real problem – she thinks, she knows, she is pregnant. What transpires for the teen is a journey of great discovery and a hard life lesson. But, she is lucky to have the support, through it all, of her cousin and friend, Skylar (Talia Ryder), in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.”
The title of Eliza Hittman’s third feature work – her notable sophomore film was the deftly told “Beach Rats (2017)” - seems an innocuous string of words. But here they are the answer choices to some very intimate and revealing questions that our heroine must face. But, Autumn’s journey, metaphorical and actual, is full of the hard knocks that the 17-yeare old must learn too soon in her young life.
Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder both give first rate performances with each having very different personalities and attitudes. Autumn is the more cynical and taciturn of the pair, while Skylar tries and tries to keep things positive. But, she has her limits, too, with her cousin’s pessimistic life-view.
The story, by director Hittman, is quite nuanced as I, the viewer, had questions about Autumn’s pregnancy. Well, the filmmaker lets you keep your questions and the details enigmatic – but there is something simmering beneath that goes untold. This, I think, helps to keep the story interesting as the girls make an almost Homeric-like odyssey to resolve the “problem.”
The dialog is sparse and the emotions are kept close as Autumn must deal with one setback after another, including keeping her family in the dark and dealing with the abortion system’s red tape. Sidney Flanigan handles herself with a maturity that belies the fact that this is her debut performance on the big screen. I guess that “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a great leap for a very talented filmmaker and her stars.