Film Review – Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
I’ve just seen Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) and am sitting here almost at a loss for words. This is now my third attempt to begin this review, because the film elicits such a wave of different reactions that it’s difficult to organize them all in my head. This a heartbreaking and powerful story whose emotions run so deeply that coming out of it I felt raw, drained, and utterly moved. Many will see this and hate it, but the themes Hittman explores necessitate conversation. This is one of the best films of the year.
The premise is not an easy one to navigate. Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) finds her life turned upside down when she discovers that she is pregnant. Not yet ready to be a mother or to go through the process of adoption, Autumn decides to have an abortion. However, Pennsylvania law prohibits minors from having an abortion without the consent of a parent. New York City does not have this law, and so Autumn – along with her cousin and coworker Skylar (Talia Ryder) – gather what little money they have and hop a bus to the Big Apple. Once there, though, they run into obstacle after obstacle causing them to stay longer than anticipated. Some of those obstacles are minor, others not so much.
There is a plethora of narrative landmines that could have sunk Never Rarely into cheap manipulation or basement-level moralizing. Abortion is such a politically charged topic that some will dismiss this without actually ever seeing it. There’s also the idea of two small town kids making their way to New York City, where the potential for danger poses as a common storytelling trope. But the brilliance of Hittman’s writing and direction is how it avoids all these traps, instead taking a grounded and realistic look at Autumn’s journey as well as her relationship with Skylar.
I am not going to pretend that I know what it is like to be a woman living in a world plagued with misogyny and sexism. But for two short hours, Hittman transported me into Autumn and Skylar’s shoes, allowing me to see things through their eyes, and how they must deal with being objectified on a daily basis. From their jobs, work, school, and even in their own homes, they continuously take the brunt of sexual advances and condescending remarks. In one of the few moments we see Autumn open herself up to others – during a talent show – she is met with some jerk kid in the audience yelling “Slut!” Even those who appear helpful, even kind, have the potential for bad motivations.
Which makes the bond between Autumn and Skylar the heart and soul of the film. Hittman skips extended monologues and keeps the back and forth between the two minimal. It points to a connection that has gone through years of building. With only a few short words and a glance, each knows what the other is thinking. There is no scene where Autumn has to justify her actions to Skylar – there is an unspoken understanding that this is her choice. Skylar’s willingness to help Autumn goes without saying as well. There is never a question as to whether Skylar will help her cousin. Even when the two don’t see eye to eye, they both support the other without fail.
Hittman (along with Helene Louvart’s cinematography) reveal character depth through nuance and suggestion. The camera is almost always shooting faces and objects in close up, highlighting details that add information without the need to specify. When Autumn learns of her pregnancy, her immediate reaction is to take a clothing pin and give herself a homemade nose ring in an effort to reclaim her body. When Skylar pockets extra cash from work, we can intuit exactly what her reasons are. This happens constantly – little bits of action to help round out and give texture to these characters.
There is a scene around the middle part of the runtime that is just as impactful as it is devastating. It is a straightforward encounter, in which Autumn answers a set of questions at the doctor’s office. Not only does this scene inspire the film’s title, but it is the moment where we see Autumn’s entire character laid out to bare. Throughout, Sidney Flanigan’s performance was one of restraint. Here, without getting into specifics, she shows us Autumn’s vulnerable side, allowing the psychological cracks to rise up to the surface. It is an incredible performance for the newcomer (this is credited as Flanigan’s first onscreen role), revealing a part of the character’s life full of insecurity and pain, amplified by the camera sitting still and holding tight on her face. In context and execution, you will not find a better scene this year.
It is now 12:16am as of the time of this writing, and I still feel like I haven’t given Never Rarely Sometimes Always the justice it deserves. In a time where mainstream movies aim for the lowest common denominator – electing for the safe and easy answers – here is a work of art that handles its material with uncompromising honesty. This is about life in all of its complexity, struggle, and beauty.