It’s not a title that trips off the tongue, rather one that sounds like something straight off the page of a questionnaire. Any relation to what you’re watching on the screen, then? It may not seem that way, but stick with it: this is a film that unfolds slowly and it will make perfect sense. But what Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t prepare you for is the way it falls into place in what is effectively its climax, one so devastating that it won’t let go of your memory. It’s all down to its simplicity and honesty – and the same goes for the entire film.
Hittman takes what, for some, will be a deeply uncomfortable and problematic issue and brings it to life on the screen by showing us the realities as they apply to one particular teenager. No fuss, no glamour, just an ordinary small town girl with a problem and one that she’s determined to sort out in her own way. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is seventeen years old and pregnant. With school work and a part time job in the local store to think about, it’s the last thing she wants and she decides on a termination. She’s 10 weeks into her pregnancy, a minor (which means getting parental consent for the procedure) and the local clinic is clearly pro-life, so her only alternative is to go elsewhere and, with the help of bestie and cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), she heads for New York, believing she can get everything done and dusted and be back home on the same day. But that first scan she had at the local clinic was wrong and she’s already into her second semester ….
It would be too simplistic to label the film as pro-abortion. If it’s in favour of anything, it’s of a more compassionate attitude to girls and young women who find themselves in this situation. Right from the outset, there’s the lurking suspicion that Autumn is in an abusive relationship and, while we only get a momentary glimpse of her boyfriend, that climax at the New York clinic confirms our fears. Even worse is what she reveals about her sexual history, although there are still parts of her personal story that are left deliberately hazy. It’s an extraordinary scene, a simple but crucial conversation between Autumn and a counsellor, with the camera permanently trained on the girl. All we hear from the older woman is her sympathetic and understanding voice. It’s Autumn’s face, the supressed tears and the wobbly bottom lip that tell us everything we need to know – and more. It’s a powerful and enormously empathetic piece of acting from first-timer Flanigan, shot through with the raw honesty that characterises the film.
Talia Ryder (to be seen at some time in the future in Spielberg’s West Side Story) is supportive and understanding as her closest friend, the more practical of the two and prepared to do pretty much anything to help. The pair carry the majority of the film between them, with all the other characters essentially smaller pieces in the jigsaw narrative. The two central performances aside, what is so striking about the film is the way it approaches its subject with huge compassion and without any sensationalism – even the anti-abortion demonstration outside the New York clinic is comparatively unintimidating.
Understated, subtle and often grey to look at, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a searingly truthful sledgehammer of a film, one that’s profoundly moving in its unassuming simplicity. It has a lot to say – about relationships, about the issue at its core, about the lives of young women – and says it quietly but determinedly. And, in so doing, it roars.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available digitally in the UK from Wednesday, 13 May 2020.