A film review by Craig J. Koban April 30, 2020

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS jjjj

2020, PG-13, 101 mins.

Sidney Flanigan as Autumn  /  Talia Ryder as Skylar  /  Théodore Pellerin as Jasper

Written and directed by Eliza Hittman

One of the very best films of the year is one that I knew next to nothing about before I saw it.  

I went into Eliza Hitmman's NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS completely cold, having no idea that it was an abortion drama.  Having said that, to simplistically label it as "an abortion drama" would be incredibly misleading, seeing as it's an unflinchingly honest and superbly acted film that never manages to overtly politicize or get aggressively preachy with its subject matter.  Its story concerns a young 17-year-old girl's journey to the big city to abort her pregnancy, yes, but as Hitmman's film unfolds it becomes less about that hot button subject and more about the unending power of sisterhood and how young women find the inner reservoir of strength and resolve to come together in solidarity to stay safe.  In lesser hands, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS could have been horribly mismanaged, but with Hittman's astute and compassionate eye it becomes something intimately powerful that will speak to many, I feel, regardless of their stance on the issue at hand. 

The film has a heartbreaking opening scene, which introduces us to its young protagonist in Autumn (first time actor Sidney Flanigan, in an astonishing debut performance) singing at her high school's talent show.  Her family in the audience seems supportive, especially her kind and nurturing cousin in Skylar (an equally superb Talia Ryder), but she faces ample heckling from some of her male students.  Her face while performing seems to hint at a deeply wounded and melancholic soul, and we soon learn why she seems so out of sorts.  The Pennsylvania residing teen fears that she's pregnant, which is confirmed during a local clinic visit (which features a doctor that seems to offer up outdated advice and pregnancy test methods that the youth could have purchased at a local drug store).  Devastated by the news, Autumn seems convinced that an abortion is the only outlet, but she can't bare the thought of her loving mother and creepily uncaring stepfather supporting her choice.  She feels alone and afraid, and turns to Google searching for an at-home way to induce a miscarriage.  Her efforts don't succeed. 

Realizing that her hometown offers her no tangible choices for any abortion services without parental consent, Autumn decides to find solace in her cousin, during which time she advises that the pair should secretly make a trek to New York to get a procedure outside of Autumn's mother and father's knowledge.  They have very little in the way of money, which forces Skylar to improvise and steal money from her local grocery store that she works at.  The pair then packs up one suitcase and purchases cheap bus tickets to Manhattan, and when they arrive they're overwhelmed by the bustling metropolis.  Autumn does make it to an abortion clinic, but soon is dealt with another inconvenient blow when it's revealed that she'll need to stay for multiple days for the procedure, which was not in her plans or budget.  With very little money left, nor a place to stay, Autumn and Skylar grow increasingly desperate to see the former's abortion through to successful fruition. 

 

 

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS has the veracity of an intimate documentary at times in terms of the way it approaches its young characters.  They feel less like heavily scripted personas that are inhabited by actors than they do come off like real flesh and blood people.  That's the key to how economical Hittman's approach to the underlining material is here.  She doesn't offer up grandiose melodramatic flourishes, nor does she even give Autumn and Skylar much in the way of dialogue.  Contrastingly and more intriguingly, Hittman wisely understands that young teen girls often can communicate volumes in a non-verbal manner, with the subtlest of glances and body language.  Many of their scenes together are done in tight close up to reinforce this, and we gain an overwhelming sense of their tight, lifelong bond in the process.  Plus, we really don't need vast dialogue exchanges here to communicate these girls at their most desperate hour.  The hurt and concern of their faces reveal everything.  NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS has such an organic look and feel throughout that creates relationships that feel wholeheartedly real.  It's this film's sense of dramatic immediacy that is its masterstroke. 

No more is this driven home than in the centerpiece scene of the film, which is easily one of the most emotionally wrenching moments that I've seen in quite some time.  Autumn finally arrives at the New York abortion clinic and is greeted by a sensitively well spoken advisor, who, in turn, has to ask the terrified girl a series of deeply personal questions as per protocol (she needs to answer them with either never, rarely, sometimes, always...an obvious nod to the film's title).  These clinical queries start to dig deeper and deeper into aspects of Autumn's sexual history that she clearly doesn't want to talk about or revisit, but need to come to the forefront in order to get the clear go-ahead for the abortion procedure.  Hittman's camera lingers on Autumn's embarrassed and traumatized face throughout.  She begins the line of questioning with confidence that latter gives way to complete emotional implosion.  It's simply one of the most unnervingly sad moments of any film from the current year.    

Moments like this would have totally collapsed without empowered actresses at the helm, and Hittman has most definitely found just that in both Flannigan and Ryder, who give two of the best teen-centric performances in a long time.  Both of these performers are silver screen novices, but you'd never know that based of watching NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS.  The pair seem to have this ethereal chemistry and acting shorthand that's usually the product of veteran actors, and to witness them both delivery thoroughly naturalistic work here is pretty mesmerizing.  Flanigan in particular gives a bravura turn of understated authenticity, and her unflashy and unfussy style is not usually the stuff of Oscar nomination bait, but she should clearly be in contention.  One thing that really stands out about these actresses' work and characters here is how they help flesh out the pertinent story ideas of how two anxiety plagued girls have to deal with multiple indignities on their quest.  Leaving their homes for New York by themselves, virtually penniless and with no where to stay, is scary enough, but then they have to deal all ends of male toxicity along the way.  That's even scarier. 

Ultimately, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS emerges less as a drama concerning a girl terminating her pregnancy and more as a tale of young female empowerment over their bodies, freedom of choice, and the ways they bond to ensure their safety.  It's a sobering story about how girls have so many troublesome issues being constantly dealt up up to them that they have to carefully sift through.  And it's not just about lack of access to proper health care options where they live.  It's about the inherent perils of being a teenage girl.  Tied into this is the thematic density on display in Hittman's film.  Abortion is clearly a deeply polarizing and controversial issue.  NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS rarely goes out of its ways to takes side on the debate or ethically weigh the pros and cons in its story.  There's no carefully crafted dialogue passages that tip the ideological scale one way or the other, nor does Hittman judge the actions of the health care practitioners contained within (in anything, her film is quite democratic in focus, showing multiple professionals here as deeply sympathetic souls that try to do good, but some struggle to do so because of underfunding or a lack of proper training).  And Hittman, most crucially, never judges her teen characters, their choices, and their subsequent actions.  She simply presents her characters as a humanistic entry point into a heated subject whose debaters often forget those most affected by it.  Hittman basically advocates here for understanding of these girls and their plight, not for moral judgment against them.  And I can't see how anyone on either side of the abortion debate won't intrinsically feel something for Autumn and her journey here, and the fact that Hittman creates such a generous and sensitively tactful handling of this material - and done without any sanctimonious manipulation -   is to her film's esteemed credit. 

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