Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 2nd, 2020
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
In her 2017 Beach Rats, director Eliza Hittman explored the challenges of a working-class closeted Brooklyn teen adrift in a world of reckless machismo, inchoate and unable to acknowledge his true desires. Paralyzed by indecision, he spirals downwards until he is finally able to ask for help. With a deftly placed camera that brought out the rawest of intimate moments, Hittman allowed her actors full reign to express their suppressed anguish, making of the film a powerful statement on the cost of self-hatred and internalized prejudice.
Now, in her follow-up third feature (her first was the 2013 It Felt Like Love), Hittman introduces the viewer to two remarkably decisive characters, who exhibit very little in the way of paralysis, even as they find themselves at a near-constant disadvantage. They are Autumn and Skylar, played by the phenomenal duo of Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, both making their feature debut. Cousins, they are also close companions, the latter not hesitating for a moment when she discovers the former’s pregnancy. A film as much about the sacrifices of friendship as about female agency, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is also a powerful condemnation of the erosion of access to safe and healthy family planning for all.
Autumn stands out from the start. In an opening sequence set in a high-school talent show, she is the lone performer not on board with the 1950s doo-wop theme, instead appearing alone, in present-day clothing, guitar slung over her shoulder, to sing one of her own songs about how “he” (whoever that is) has dominated her and made her do things effectively against her will. Cut to a post-show unhappy family meal, where Autumn and dad do not get along – though proud mom tries hard to praise everyone’s spirits – where Autumn storms out of the restaurant, though not before throwing a drink in the face of a boy there, possibly the one who heckled her during the concert.
The next morning, on her way to a dispiriting job at the local supermarket, she stops by a health clinic for a pregnancy test, disgusted to see that they use nothing more than the kind of kit she could have bought, herself, at work. The results come back positive, and the overly optimistic clinic employees assure Autumn that there is nothing more wonderful than giving birth. Except she doesn’t want to; she’s 17. In Pennsylvania, where she lives, however, that means she would need parental consent for an abortion. Since that’s not going to happen, she despairs. Until, that is, Skylar steps up and helps her plan the trip to New York City where no such restrictions apply. Off they go, then, on what will surely be a fraught journey.
That the worst doesn’t happen is a relief, given how exposed and vulnerable they quickly become in the Big Apple, but the experience is still dangerous and degrading. The title comes from the answers Autumn is asked to give by a supportive healthcare provider in New York who asks probing questions about the young woman’s sexual history, all in the name of ensuring that she is there of her own free will and conscious of the choice she is making. As nice as her questioner may be, it’s still a harrowing process, especially when the queries turn to abuse. We never learn exactly what has happened to Autumn, but it’s not good, whether at the hands of a boyfriend or her father. And yet here she is, tired and scared, but determined. That’s real strength.
There are no good men here, and Hittman thereby effectively portrays the eternal struggle faced by women everywhere in a world ruled by patriarchy. Men are entitled to everything, while women must fight for the little left. With long-held close-ups on her actresses that bring out every bit of internal turmoil, Hittman elevates her extraordinary ordinary protagonists to the pedestal they deserve for surviving all-too-frequent masculine predations. If the movie has a flaw, it’s that the two leads are so superb that the other actors seem weak by comparison, stilted in their line delivery where Flanigan and Ryder are perfect. Beyond this mild critique, Never Rarely Sometimes Always shines as a model of a masterfully crafted dramatic polemic.
[Never Rarely Sometimes Always comes out on April 3, 2020 on a variety of PVOD – paid video on demand – platforms]