Film Review: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Is Timely & Timeless
The parallels between Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always are striking. They both give keenly-observed, naturalistic accounts of the trauma foisted upon young women trying to procure an abortion. Only Mungiu’s Palm d’Or winner was set in communist Romania, while Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes place in modern-day America. Which underlines the film’s timeliness and, sadly, its timelessness. Nothing much has changed — regardless of generation or geography.
The film begins with Autumn, a 17-year-old girl in suburban Pennsylvania, singing a country ditty at a school talent show. At one point a boy calls out “slut,” momentarily stopping her mid-song. There is no reprimand from the adults in attendance. Teachers don’t bat an eyelid. Her parents remain silent. This is the world Autumn inhabits. One in which boys yell slurs, her lecherous boss slobbers on her hand after every shift and daddy dearest calls their dog promiscuous because it likes to be petted. Men act with impunity, while Autumn holds her tongue.
Unsurprisingly when Autumn discovers she’s pregnant, she doesn’t turn to her parents or a teacher or a peer. Instead, the teenager takes herself to a doctor who provides a pregnancy test and shows her an anti-abortion video. Determined to have agency over her own body, our steely, oft-monosyllabic protagonist turns to that bastion of good advice — the internet. After failing to an induce a miscarriage on her own via pills and self-harm, Autumn simply carries on until her best friend and cousin, Skylar, joins the dots.
Together, they hatch a plan to travel to New York, where minors can access abortion without parental consent. With little cash and no big-city nous, Autumn and Skylar are at the mercy of NYC and the manifold creeps that prey on the young and unsophisticated. That is when Autumn isn’t being prodded, poked and analyzed in various doctors’ offices. Hittman’s film has a matter-of-fact approach to these scenes, which border on a PSA. She painstakingly takes us through the steps, from the initial invasive questions to dilation of the cervix.
The kindness of the NYC health professionals is in stark contrast to what Autumn experienced at home. She is treated with respect and dignity, but the process, which includes walking in front of protesters and multiple procedures, is still highly invasive and flawed. It shouldn’t be this crushing to assert an essential human right in 21st-century America. In addition to highlighting the steps involved in procuring an abortion, the film is also an unsettling snapshot of girlhood. Autumn’s responses to a questionnaire — from which the film gets its title — are heartbreaking.
As Autumn, Sidney Flanigan is nothing short of revelatory. Every dead-eyed stare and mumbled “okay” speaks volumes about her inner turmoil. She is matched, scene for scene, by Talia Ryder as her confidant and one-woman support system. Skylar is a little further along in her journey of self-discovery, but she is still completely believable as a small-town teen. Their friendship feels authentic and gives some hope that they just might make it to adulthood — more or less in one piece — as long as they have each other.
Hittman’s Beach Rats was one of my favorite films of 2017, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always is better. This is a director in full control of their artistic vision and with boundless empathy to convey it. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an important film that should be shown to young women and, perhaps more importantly, young men. Who need to be aware of the physical and emotional consequences of their actions. Don’t be too surprised if this is in the mix come awards season.