Director: Eliza Hittman | 1h 41mins | Drama
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old girl from Pennsylvania, founds out she’s pregnant. In order to get the help she needs she heads to New York with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder).
This review may contain spoilers.
Sometimes a film is much bigger than it first seems; this year, we saw a similar thing with The Assistant (2020), a film that speaks subtly on the office environment and the day-to-day harassment that women suffer. Eliza Hittman’s tender drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always works in a similar vein, telling the tale of a young teenage girl as she tries to get help from a system that is backwardly against her. It’s a narrative that subtly tells us her experience while providing a wake up call to just how broken a place the world can be.
The main character Autumn is a quiet person, something that is brushed off as teenage angst by her miserable step-father but earnestly defended by her mother. After a school performance, the family go to a restaurant where her step-father even refuses to compliment her because of her attitude. It’s not abusive but it certainly isn’t supportive, something that’s honest to a lot of family relationships across the world. In the restaurant as well is a group of boys who make snide comments to Autumn as she storms out, until she throws water in their face. It’s a wonderfully set up film, one that tells a lot about character and situation without really saying a lot – something that’s continued effortlessly throughout the film.
There’s a wonderful example of the film’s ‘show not tell’ style before we even know of Autumn’s pregnancy. She’s a teenage girl who feels alone in this world and, unable to tell anyone about her situation, Hittman shows us through the subtlest of camera movements. As Autumn stands, looking at herself in the mirror, the camera delicately moves to focus on her stomach. It’s a beautiful way to tell your audience what’s happening and the entire movie is full of these gorgeously composed sequences that allow us to engage in a story about a central character with such an internal and bottled up personality.
After going to the local clinic, Autumn begins discussing adoption options with her nurse: someone who’s very polite and understanding due to her occupation but is evasive when it comes to conversations on abortion. The only ‘help’ she gives is by showing Autumn a transparent anti-abortion tape. After all, we know the horrid laws that have been passed in certain states of the US, the whole reason films like this are important. But, after a cursory web search and a heartbreaking attempt at ‘self-abortion’, Autumn finds a potential solution in New York.
It’s such a joy to watch a film so in command of its story and message, one that’s told with such delicate beauty and heart-wrenching honesty.
Joining her on the journey is her cousin, Skylar, who’s really the only companion and friend that Autumn has in this lonely world. But Skylar opens up a whole new level of commentary for the film. She isn’t just a passenger of support on this journey but a character that Hittman uses to show us the daily discomfort a young girl has to suffer at the hands of men. She’s greeted by her boss, who’s a lot older, with an uncomfortable kiss on the hand. She even meets a boy on the bus to New York who can’t seem to take rejection when it’s staring him blankly in the face.
There’s one scene in particular that’s devastatingly honest; when the two girls are trying to find money to get home. Skylar gives in to the advances of the guy from the bus and, as she’s pinned up against a wall while he kisses her, an unnoticed Autumn can only lock hands with her cousin, letting her know she is by her side. Hittman has created a delicately layered film and the relationship between Skylar and Autumn is one of the most important layers in it. These two characters though are nothing without an actor that’s able to handle the pressure of such representation, and Sidney Flanigan (Autumn) and Talia Ryder (Syklar) are perfect with every nuance of emotion demanded of them, both as a unit and in telling their own narratives.
The film’s title “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” refers to a particular scene in the film, one in which Autumn has to go through a questionnaire of sorts to determine the nature of her pregnancy and whether or not she has suffered any abuse. Now, up until this point, Autumn has been relatively subdued emotionally, usually lost in her own thoughts or determined to hide her anguish. But when the Nurse asks her about any forced sexual experience, all that bottled up emotion that’s been settling inside of Autumn comes tumbling out. It’s here we learn that her pregnancy may have been a product of abuse. It’s a scene that has such heart-sinking power, one that’s performed immaculately. And Hittman’s decision to stay tightly locked onto Autumn’s face is a stroke of genius; such a raw scene that sees the quality of the film at its zenith, a scene that could very well be one of the best 2020 has to offer.
It’s such a joy to watch a film so in command of its story and message, one that’s told with such delicate beauty and heart-wrenching honesty. Not just that though, it gives two blistering performances that shake you to your core. Subtle, moving and devastatingly real, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is one of the finest examples of unspoken storytelling that you’ll see for a long time.