Never, rarely, sometimes, always. The title of this film is a reference to the choice of four answers Autumn is asked to give in response to deeply personal questions as a prerequisite to abortion. These questions mirror the tone of this film; very cold, very somber. The politics of this topic never seem to go away. However, this film approaches the issue not from a political perspective, but rather an innocent and deeply intimate one.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a 17-year-old girl living in rural Pennsylvania who comes from an unhappy home. When she discovers she is pregnant she confides only in her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). Pennsylvania does not allow a minor to have an abortion without the consent of her parents, so she and Skylar hop on a bus and travel to New York. Alone with limited funds, Autumn is forced to navigate the confusing healthcare system as well as New York City with only her cousin by her side.
Actors Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are both brand new to the big screen and deliver incredible and unique performances. What makes them unique is how understated the majority of it is. So much of the relationship between Autumn and Skylar is left unsaid. There is a deep unspoken bond and it is through their actions and interactions with one another that most of this story is told. Both characters show very little emotion throughout most of the film, facing their encounters with cold resilience. There is no heavy-handed narrative or melodrama added to manipulate the audience into feeling anything more than they need to feel. The result is an extraordinary piece of realism.
What’s even more unique about this film is how much is undisclosed. The circumstances of how Autumn became pregnant are never addressed. It becomes clear she’s been abused, presumably by her father as well as others, but the exact details are not given. We are left to infer such things from the various interactions; but even then, not enough context is given to truly know much about what happened. The brilliance of this is that it takes away the audience’s ability to pass any sort of judgment that could insulate us from her vulnerability. It doesn’t matter how this happened or why she feels the way she does about it. None of that is relevant to why we are here, which is simply to share the journey.
The journey is something most of us, especially men, will never experience. We will never know what it’s like to feel like our own bodies are holding us hostage. What it’s like to not be able to talk about it to those around us for fear of social persecution and abandonment. We’ll never know what it’s like to be relentlessly interrogated when we are at our most vulnerable by the healthcare industry, only to encounter roadblock after roadblock. Never Rarely Sometimes Always gives us an invaluable window into this bleak and terrifying world.
What’s also done so incredibly well is the depiction of New York City. Anyone who has ever been on a subway at night, particularly alone, is likely familiar with that unsettling feeling. That same feeling is invoked just by watching this film. The dark underbelly of New York comes off eerily well as the girls are forced to wander overnight with little to no money and no one they can trust to call for help. All of this is brought to life in a way that is just so haunting and surreal. If director Eliza Hittman isn’t on your radar yet, after this she absolutely should be.
The consequence of all this is certainly a film that is not conventionally entertaining. You will have to be open to the experience to see the value here, and accept that this palpable realism comes at the expense of the conventional narrative techniques most movies use to keep our attention. It pays little mind to its own pacing and isn’t interested in providing us the type of rising action and climax we come to expect from traditional storytelling. It proceeds without narration and, despite the weight of the subject matter, doesn’t emphasize a clear moral. This is simply a chapter of Autumn’s life, removed from context, and put on display for us to take in.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always unconventional nature makes it difficult to evaluate on par with other films. This is definitely not something one would go see looking for a fun night at the movies or even for a traditional tearjerker or drama. Yet considering the delicate nature of the subject matter, anything that fell into the realm of traditional filmmaking would likely fail by trivializing it. Approaching this subject matter demands a delicate hand and the filmmaking finesse to present it in such a way that does it justice without feeling like it’s exploiting the controversy. Hittman manages to find this balance by expertly breaking just the right rules. The result may still be a film that will not captivate general audiences, but that’s an acceptable sacrifice made to pave the way for this marvel of artistic realism.
About Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Synopsis: 17-year-old Autumn runs away with her cousin Skylar to New York City so she can have an abortion.
Director: Eliza Hittman
Writer: Eliza Hittman
Stars: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
Run time: 1 Hour, 41 Minutes