A Review of Never Rarely Sometimes Always
In director Eliza Hittman’s latest film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, we meet our protagonist, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), while she is performing at a 50’s sock hop themed school talent show. Her classmates lip-sync or dance to pre-recorded songs, but she gets up in front of everyone and sings and plays the guitar herself. Autumn has a sense of melancholy to her that makes her seem mature, yet she still seems young enough to be a high school student. She sings the line: “He makes me do things I don’t want to do,” shortly before being heckled by a boy in the audience, but she stays strong and keeps going. She and her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), work at a local grocery store where they experience varying degrees of toxic masculinity from both male customers and their own manager. Autumn, who initially seems like a teenage girl with a normal amount of angst, slowly starts to exhibit that there is more going on in her life: she’s pregnant.
Set in western Pennsylvania, Autumn initially visits a women’s clinic that is heavily Pro-Life, where she is shown a graphic “abortion is murder” video. At 17, she is not legally allowed to have an abortion without parental consent. While her mother appears both loving and concerned, she already has her hands full with two younger children and Autumn’s lackluster (and, at times, inappropriate) stepfather. Autumn keeps the news of her pregnancy to herself while she tries to figure out ways to induce a miscarriage, before she finally admits to her cousin what is really going on. The two decide to take a bus to New York City, where Autumn will be able to have an abortion as an unaccompanied minor. Hittman’s film really focuses on this journey and the odyssey of these two teenage girls attempting to maintain control over their own bodies and decisions.
Cinematographer Hélène Louvart worked with Hittman on Never and on her previous film, Beach Rats. Both films explore gaze in various ways. The films take their time, focusing on surroundings, bodies, and in particular, on faces. It is a filmmaking choice that forces the viewer to linger more on emotions than dialogue. Part of what is so impactful about Eliza Hittman’s writing and directing is, indeed, the lack of dialogue. Her characters are more expressive through movements or a look than they are through what they say, whether it is Frankie, the closeted teen boy from Beach Rats, or Autumn. Autumn looks angry for much of the early portion of the film, but that anger is also fear, as well as quiet strength.
In Beach Rats, Frankie struggles with a degree of self-loathing, hiding his burgeoning queer sexuality from his friends and family. His performance is very intertwined with his own desires, and he struggles to understand what he really wants and how to accept himself. He lives two separate lives: one during the day with his family and friends, the other at night in online gay chat rooms. With Autumn, we never witness this hidden side of her existence. We do not know how she became pregnant or who (in particular) has potentially abused her. This mystery creates a different atmosphere, one where any of the male characters in her life could potentially be the perpetrator, or where all of them are. This male experience - at times casual and at other times very threatening - is a regular part of life for both Autumn and Skylar. Their journey to New York is not glorified. They drag a heavy suitcase with them as they attempt to sleep on the subway or inside the bus station. They are country mice in the big city, offering us what would pass for glimpses of tourism if it were not for the real reason behind their visit. We have short respites from this darker purpose - watching them pick out pastries in a Chinese bakery, seeing them play video games in an arcade - before we (and they) are forced to confront it once again.
When Autumn finally finds herself in an exam room in New York with a Planned Parenthood counselor, we realize how much she has been quietly fighting to hold it together for much of the film. Here she must answer several questions during the intake process regarding her past relationships and sexual history. The possible answers she must choose from are the title of the film: Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Through this short but very intense scene, we finally see Autumn’s stoic face break with a wave of emotion. The scene recontextualizes the film and all that we may have thought about her character up until this point. It’s fantastic. It makes a film that has already been really good, suddenly incredible. Sidney Flanigan’s performance as Autumn is understated, yet she is still a fully realized character. Talia Ryder’s performance as her cousin Skylar is also incredibly strong. Skylar is quietly supportive of Autumn throughout the journey. While she is also young, she seems more worldly than Autumn at times. She recognizes the desire of Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), a boy they meet on the bus, and decides out of necessity that she must put herself in an unwanted situation with him in order to help her and Autumn get enough money to return home after the procedure.
When Autumn and Skylar finally get on the bus home to head back to their regular lives, we should feel relieved. But we’re not. It’s their “normal” lives that led them on this journey in the first place. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is at times bleak, but it always feels real. It adeptly recognizes and displays the dangers of being a teenage girl in America, and the continued struggle for women to have autonomy over their own bodies. In the end, the abortion itself is not the most horrifying event of the film. The struggle and experiences of these two girls is far more haunting.
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro