Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a tender drama that tackles tough topics
Seventeen-year-old Autumn is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, keeping it a secret from everyone, including her parents. She plans to have an abortion – but they’re illegal in her home state of Pennsylvania. When Autumn wins the confidence of her fellow cashier and cousin Skylar, the two decide to go on a challenging and dangerous road trip to New York City to help Autumn follow through with her plan.
Completely out of their depth, the vulnerable girls scrape together what money they have in order to get the procedure done as quickly as possible.
It’s more about Autumn than about abortion
Abortion is a hot topic, and it’s no surprise that Hittman has tackled it, as her dramas tend to deal with sexuality and all its nuances. Never Rarely Sometimes Always plays like a docudrama, giving a non-judgemental account of a teenage pregnancy as a young woman exercises her right to choose.
Autumn starts out by Googling ways to induce miscarriage, but the fly-on-the-wall drama branches out as she realises that self-inflicted bodily harm and unconventional methods are just not enough. The title references the film’s most powerful moment, where Autumn undergoes pre-abortion counselling.
But don’t expect Never Rarely Sometimes Always to offer any graphic or grisly details about the medical procedure itself. It’s the complete antithesis, focusing rather on the character portrait of Autumn.
Navigating NYC, the patriarchy and toxic masculinity
If anything, the film has faint echoes of the brilliant Polish drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Instead of coming up against a dictatorship in the 80s, the two young women are navigating their way through the complexities of a progressive yet traditionally male-dominated society.
Bringing toxic masculinity into the frame, Hittman hints at why Autumn doesn’t want this pregnancy beyond the normal complications of becoming a teenage mom or single parent. It’s these subtle storytelling devices that compel the drama, which has a day-in-the-life flow as the girls try to survive New York City. Staying a step ahead of the creeps, hobos and criminals, they resort to sleeping in subways and on trains to save money.
Grappling with the consequences of Autumn’s pregnancy, Never Rarely Sometimes Always completes the circle through Skylar, who reluctantly befriends a young man in order to siphon money and have a friendly fail-safe. This uncomfortable exchange reveals more of the complex ever-shifting gender politics of today without taking sides.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always has a sombre tone, enlightening and unpacking challenging subject matter through its slice-of-life treatment and uncommon tenderness. There’s a melancholy to these events that play out with a cinematic purity and Eliza Hittman is in no rush, allowing the drama to unfurl with pacing that’s deliberately slow.
Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder give beautifully natural performances
With the camera transfixed on Autumn at times, there’s nowhere to hide as the actors immerse themselves in their character’s inner lives.
Sidney Flanigan is this coming-of-age drama’s Juno, except there’s very little to laugh or talk about. Sinking into Autumn, Flanigan’s relative anonymity adds to the performance as it ceases to seem like acting and becomes more like being.
The same can be said for Talia Ryder, as the two up-and-coming talents seem like they were directed to feel their way through scenes. This naturalistic approach makes what little dialogue there is seem spontaneous as they’re filmed going about their business in between medical check ups.
Sparsely scripted, Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t have many words to reinforce the intimacy established through the sensitive fly-on-the-wall storytelling. This distance keeps the characters just out of reach in a sort of universal role where they are one and all. Thankfully strong performances and nuanced visual storytelling enhances the characters refraining from overburdening a simple yet elegant tale. This every-girl story may be fairly straightforward but layers itself with social themes, friendship dynamics and subtextual references to Mary and the nativity story.
While it’s wonderful that this year’s Academy Awards features so much female talent, this is definitely one of the year’s biggest snubs, a film that deserves more recognition.