Director: Eliza Hittman
Writer: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin
Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, 17-year-old Autumn (Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Ryder) embark on a journey across state lines to New York to try and find the help that society seems to be constantly denying Autumn.
In a recent review that I wrote I stated that in film that less can often be more, and while that said film pretty much demonstrated very much the opposite of that theory (very much to its detriment) Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a superb demonstration of that notion and how it can produce effectively compelling and engaging drama. From start to finish Eliza Hitman skilfully makes sure that her script keeps its cards very closely to its chest and intentionally reveals only certain facts about Autumn and her pregnancy. Though we the audience cannot help but want to know all of these facts, it is very much the case that within the context of the narrative these facts are not actually important. Our protagonist faces a very traumatic situation, and certain reasons why and how she is in this situation are no longer important, as the fact is that she is now in a situation where she just has to deal with it – on her own.
The whole story is told at an intentionally slow pace that features naturalistic dialogue, and this only serves to produce a deeply compelling and engaging drama. Unfortunately the fact is that Autumn’s situation is not unique, and while the film skilfully avoids taking one particular stance on the very passionate and long running debate surrounding abortions, it does very effectively capture the complexity of the subject and how of course each person’s situation is different. The film just throughs us straight into the story with very little character introduction; we are given hardly information about Autumn’s backstory and how she came to be pregnant, and this proves to be very effective as it minimises any potential pre-determined opinion we may have of our protagonist. In the opening scene of the film in a school talent show she sings a song about being deeply in love and being willing to do anything for them, and while in the middle of the song someone in the audience someone shouts out ‘slut!’, then later at a meal with her family Autumn storms out after receiving a backhanded compliment from what is presumably a man that is her mum’s boyfriend and not her actual father, and on the way out throughs a drink over the man who shouted at her earlier. Whether this man was just a random student just being rude or there is far more to it is never revealed, but as previously stated, that is ultimately not of any importance to the narrative, as Autumn faces the same traumatic struggles either way.
The film does almost feel claustrophobic at times as most shots are a close up on Autumn as she stoically tries to deal with her situation by herself, with only her cousin for help. Some scenes are intentionally done in a single take with the camera never leaving Autumn’s face, such as deeply uncomfortable scenes where she stares at a mirror continuously punching herself in the stomach or where she is asked a questionnaire by a psychologist about her sexual partners within the last 12 months. This particular scene is deeply traumatic and uncomfortable (but for the right reasons) as she is given the four potential answers of ‘Never, rarely, sometimes, always’ (hence the title of the film) to the various questions and sometimes Autumn fails to state an answer, but the prolonged silences, her expression and her body language do provide the answer. This scene alone demonstrates the rare and unique power of film in that a scene can say so much and be incredibly powerful by just having minimal dialogue and one continuous take focussing on a single character, and the fact she does not give an actual answer actually says far more than if she were to just give a seemingly simple one word answer to the question. It is a particularly harrowing and haunting scene that lingers long in the memory and manages to say a lot about the protagonist’s backstory without actually directly saying much at all.
The film is not without is contrivances, such as the inclusion of a third character that the two women meet on the bus to New York that they then rely on to help them out financially. Though it provides a little bit of balance in that there is at least one male character who appears to be decent, he does merely serve a narrative function. Though this is very much a story about Autumn, it can be quite grating when a supporting character seems to be solely included just to serve a convenient narrative function. Likewise the two main characters do encounter a lot of unpleasant men, and though the film’s arguments about misogyny do of course have some validity (and there are undoubtedly many women out there that have the same harrowing experience as our protagonist – and the film is of course rightfully about her harrowing individual journey) to just tarnish all men with the same brush does threaten to undermine some its fundamental arguments. However, on the whole Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a genuinely compelling story, and its apparent simplicity in its approach is what makes it so unforgettable and profoundly haunting.
An intentionally harrowing, but deeply engaging and unforgettable drama; Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a delicately observed film about some extremely important issues that will linger long in the memory.
At time of writing Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to stream on various platforms