Sometimes too restrained for its own good, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always still tells a moving tale of stress and solidarity in young women
by Steve Murray
March 12, 2020
When you see the scene that inspires it, the awkward title Never Rarely Sometimes Always makes perfect sense. That scene alone justifies watching a movie that sometimes holds its emotional cards too tightly, that errs on the side of affectless restraint rather than going for easy drama or sentiment. While my feelings about the movie are mixed, it’s an admirable, sensitive work and worth a look. Following a truncated theatrical release, the Focus Features film will be available on April 3 for rental on VOD platforms for $19.99 (like their other recent titles, Emma. and The Hunt).
An award winner at Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival, writer-director Eliza Hittman’s (Beach Rats) drama centers on 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan, in her film debut). Shy and taciturn, she’s a lot like other high schoolers her age – self-conscious, and vulnerable to taunts from other students. Home life isn’t a lot better: a stepfather who scoffs at her perfectly normal teen angst, and a mother distracted by two younger daughters.
Let me take that back: Autumn’s angst isn’t perfectly normal. She’s secretly pregnant, and the fetus is at least 10 weeks old. That’s what she’s told by the sweet-faced lady at the free clinic she consults. The place turns out to be one of those honey traps that lures vulnerable women in, only to horrify them with graphic videos of abortions, and cajole them into bringing the baby to term and/or putting it up for adoption. (Maybe some of the people who work at places like this mean well, but the bait-and-switch nature of their operation seems very cruel.)
Luckily, Autumn has Skylar (Talia Ryder, very good), her cousin, best friend and co-worker on the checkout line at the local grocery. Catching her cuz having to flee the cash register to puke, Skylar figures out what’s up, shovels some of the day’s earnings from the cash tray into her pocket, and arranges to go with Autumn on a bus to New York City to get the procedure she can’t procure in small-town Pennsylvania. From the checkout line to the bus terminal, this is one of the loveliest, wordless sequences of female solidarity I’ve seen in a while.
On the other hand, in its hushed, cinema-verité style, Never Rarely Sometimes Always can be a little too self-serious and withholding. As we follow Autumn and Skylar lugging a ridiculous suitcase through Manhattan, where they mostly waste time at Port Authority since they lack cash for a hotel, the movie is immersive. There’s an advantage to writer-director Hittman’s decision not to fill the girls’ mouths with the pop-reference quips that pass for dialogue in other movies. But the experience is sometimes, well, dull.
The scene that gives the film its title occurs in a single long shot. The camera focuses on Autumn (and here, Flanigan is especially good) as gentle, kindly clinic social worker asks her about her past sexual experiences, with answers chosen only from those four words. The movie never tells us who the father of the baby is, but from Autumn’s responses… well, you know, without specifics, why she doesn’t want to bring this soul into the world.
That’s connected to the film’s big downside: There isn’t a single redeemable man in the movie. The gender politics are way overdetermined. Autumn’s stepdad nuzzles the family dog while calling the affectionate pet a “little slut.” The grocery store manager creepily kisses Autumn and Skylar’s hands when they pass cash through the delivery slot. A guy on the subway starts jerking off, staring at Autumn. Even the young fellow in New York who winds up helping the girls, financially, at their lowest moment does so only after a transactional, intimate exchange with Skylar.
“Don’t you ever just wish you were a dude?” Skylar asks, and Autumn answers, “All the time.” Maybe. But the dudes we see in Never Rarely are absolutely not the kind of people anyone would want to be.
Steve Murray is an award-winning arts journalist who has written about film, theater, books, and television for a quarter century.
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