“This is the most magical sound you will ever hear,” an ultrasound technician tells Autumn in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. As Autumn, played remarkably by newcomer Sidney Flanigan, listens to her fetus’s heartbeat, “magic” hardly comes to mind. Autumn says nothing, but her face conveys a world of heartache.
It’s not that Autumn never wants to be a mother. She’s just 17 years old. Now is not the time. However, this young woman grows up extremely quickly in the brief time we get to know her. There are few reliable supports for Autumn in her small Pennsylvanian town. The ultrasound technician’s well-intentioned, if completely biased, words of comfort speak to the conservatism that risks dictating Autumn’s fate. Using her strong wills and the rock-solid bond she shares with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), though, Autumn takes control of her fate. The coming-of-age journey these two women undertake provides a sobering, surprising, and ultimately moving portrait of true friendship.
A hidden gem waits to be discovered in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Not to be confused with the similarly titled Bill Nighy flick, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a revelatory coming-of-age tale. This festival favourite gets a quick preview on digital channels after having its March theatrical release postponed amid COVID-19 precautions. However, limited release sparks the film’s independent spirit. This is one of those small wonders of a film that one often needs to seek out.
A prizewinner at Sundance and Berlin, the laurels for Never Rarely Sometimes Always include a Sundance trophy for neorealist style. While the notion of a new wave abortion drama might conjure ideas of gritty Romanian cinema, this is not 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Never Rarely Sometimes Always isn’t a dark fable, nor a cautionary tale, nor a bleak drama. It’s a lifesaver. And I don’t mean this point rhetorically—this film could probably save someone’s life.
Director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) offers a frank and unsentimental view into a journey undertaken by many girls and young women. The film follows Autumn and Skylar as they skip town and head for New York City. One state over, Autumn can take care of her situation without alerting her mom, so the girls play hooky and hitch a bus to NYC. While en route, they meet a talkative young man, Jasper (Canuck rising star Théodore Pellerin), who’s just a bit too old for them to be interested. But he’s genuinely friendly by American standards and is eager to party. Readers, be warned.
“Never,” “Rarely,” “Sometimes,” or “Always”
Hittman peppers the film with guys like Jasper and situations in which girls like Autumn and Skylar feel trapped. The film jolts with mundane elements that illustrate the systemic misogyny over women’s bodies. It could be anything from a dusty pro-life VHS at the clinic to a kiss expected in return for help. Alternatively, it could be the boy who cries “slut!” at school or the man who touches himself on the subway. In a small town or a big city, the girls confront the unsettling reality that no matter where they go, men feel entitled to use them as they please.
Autumn’s journey is a fight for agency and a self-awakening. She learns that the only person with a right to decide what happens with her body is herself. The film gets its title from a gut-punch of a scene in which Autumn endures a questionnaire about her relationships. Her compassionate counsellor, reportedly a real Planned Parenthood employee to further the film’s neorealist authenticity, offers a series of questions. The multiple-choice answers are “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “always.” The questions probe Autumn’s relationship with the boy who got her pregnant. While Flanigan begins the questionnaire stoic and strong, she pauses as the survey approaches questions of abuse. Autumn falters as she reveal an escalating scale of violence.
Hittman develops this stirring in her two young leads as Autumn and Skylar find valuable support through the women in the clinics. Unlike back home, the staff and doctors don’t try to push an agenda. They simply strive to ensure informed consent. The new information Autumn receives speaks to the outdated mores back home and changes the girls’ plans, putting them alone in the city for longer than expected and testing their resilience as they protect one another in the concrete jungle.
Natural Stars and Female Friendship
The two actors drive the film and Flanigan and Ryder have a sisterly rapport. The naturalism of the acting ultimately elevates the film. It’s rare to see such accessible performances and such raw, vulnerable, and powerful acting come from two newcomers in the same film. Pellerin, even at a ripe 22 years old, is the veteran of the ensemble, but he’s proven himself adept to create someone who feels refreshingly real after films like Genesis and Family First. The naturalism of his performance, meanwhile, riffs on Hittman’s frank direction that probes everyday toxic masculinity.
Hittman, a native New Yorker herself, imbues the film with the energy and pace of the world’s most exciting city. The film is refreshingly observant as the girls’ odyssey reveals the limited public spaces in the sprawling city and the challenges of mobility and security that are often tied to economic means. (The girls have only a few bucks when they arrive, which doesn’t last long even for us thrifty ones.) Never Rarely Sometimes Always pulses with the vitality of urban living thanks to the tightly framed and intimate cinematography Hélène Louvart. It gives one the sense of feeling small in a giant world, but by honing in close on Flanigan and Ryder, the bond between the friends affords a sense of security. The film offers a sense of reassuring strength by sharing the value of having someone in your life who truly gets you.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always will be available to rent for a 48-hour period on VOD beginning April 3.
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