In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Sundance directing alum Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) engages with a subject quite frequently explored in films and television, but never quite to the same cold, graphic detail as it’s depicted here. That topic is abortion, and Hittman’s film comes at a specific time when reproductive rights for young women are under heavy assault in America, making it all the more relevant of a watch.
The film follows Autumn (Sydney Flanigan), a 17-year-old loner who quickly discovers she’s become pregnant, and she has no interest in informing the father, or anyone really. She’d much rather end the pregnancy in secret for reasons that become more clear as the film progresses. Due to strict abortion laws in her state, however, Autumn has to trek all the way to New York City with her best friend and cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) with almost no money or plan, except to terminate the pregnancy while it’s still legally possible.
There’s not a lot of dialogue in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but that doesn’t mean a lot isn’t being said in each scene. Autumn is quiet by nature, and the beauty of her complexity is in the details of her physicality, especially when her body turns against her at certain moments. The movie emphasizes the surprising fact that Autumn doesn’t really know much about pregnancy, abortion, and other complicated procedures.
Most screenwriters tend to write these characters as wise beyond the years in order to balance likability with the perceived shame of their situation. But Hittman clearly understands that what makes someone likable isn’t a Sundance-esque wit made for Hollywood, but rather their authenticity as a teenager who’s in over her head and quick to believe those in authority, even if they don’t seem to have her best interests at heart.
But really, it’s the friendship between Autumn and Skylar that truly brings the film to profound life. Their connection is uncomplicated, nearly unconditional, but not without its own silent rules and implications. When the two girls are forced to kill time however they can in a city that never sleeps, their choices of activity do more to express who they are as teenagers than any line of dialogue ever could. The film is at its most beautiful when it accurately portrays the wistful spontaneity of young life, but also its many dangers and realms of uncertainty.
One key scene, perhaps the most memorable and pivotal, lays out the intention behind the title of this film. Never. Rarely. Sometimes. Always. We have multiple choices, but there is no wrong answer. Yet at the same time, there actually is. Teenagers are told to be themselves in most forms of pop culture, but what they’re often not told is that their decisions today can go on to shape the trajectory of their entire lives. The severity and urgency of that choice is what drives Autumn. And while the film introduces many clues and hints of what is truly motivating some of Autumn’s more questionable choices, those truths weren’t ever meant for us observers.
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