I'd put off seeing the film "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" because I thought the theme, that of a young woman trying to get an abortion, was too dark to watch in this era of COVID-19 quarantine. But I relented, and I'm definitely glad I did.
Following is my review, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
The struggle over abortion is one of the many issues that has split the United States into the polarized mess it’s become. And there’s no easy way to resolve the problem, what with one side claiming that abortion is about a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body and the other side defining it as the literal murder of babies.
Even the wise King Solomon would have trouble mediating that dispute.
Filmmaker Eliza Hittman likely has an opinion about which position holds the high moral ground. But in her film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which she both wrote and directed, Hittman is less interested in campaigning for her point of view than she is in capturing the experience of a young woman who struggles to deal with the issue on a personal level.
Autumn (played by newcomer Sidney Flanigan) is a 17-year-old high-school student living in rural Pennsylvania. When we first meet her, she’s participating in a typical high-school pageant – the kind with Elvis impersonators and pop dance routines – playing an acoustic guitar and singing a song about the demands of love titled “He’s Got the Power.”
If that isn’t enough of a clue as to what has happened to Autumn, then the glass of water that she throws in the face of a smirking teen boy is. Followed by a predictable failed pregnancy test.
That use of the word “predictable,” though, is the only time I’ll use it in this review. Because besides being the most accomplished film I’ve seen this year, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” doesn’t go where anyone trained by Hollywood or TV melodrama would expect. The surprise that Hittman provides us is that there is no surprise, no big dramatic moment, just a series of naturally occurring, yet continually intense, sequences.
That splashed water incident, for example, never leads anywhere in particular. It simply makes the point that Autumn, though as naive about life as any 17-year-old, is no pushover. And that failed pregnancy test is what sets her on her determined course to obtain an abortion.
Yet she finds the process in Pennsylvania too difficult to navigate without a parent’s permission – and for reasons we can only guess at, Autumn doesn’t want to tell her parents anything. So, mustering their resources, she and her cousin Skylar (played by another fresh face, Talia Ryder), board a bus for New York, where the process promises to be easier. They lug with them a heavy suitcase that seems an improbable accessory except as a visual metaphor for the emotional baggage weighing on both girls.
And much of that baggage comes courtesy of the men in their lives, from Autumn’s man-child stepfather to her careless fellow schoolmates, from her creepy store manager to the guy on the bus who hits on Skylar, but most especially the guy whom they see fondling himself on the subway. But some of it, too, comes in the form of a bureaucracy that seems designed to thwart Autumn’s every effort to do what she wants.
That includes both the staff members of the hometown clinic, who lie to her about how far along her pregnancy is, and those at the clinic in New York, who – by necessity – force Autumn to spend two nights in the city, time she can’t easily waste waiting to have the procedure.
It’s in New York where Autumn is put through the interview that provides Hittman with her film’s title: She is asked a series of questions, to which she has to choose as an answer one of the following: Never Rarely Sometimes Always. And when asked whether anyone has ever forced her to have sex, Autumn – who for much of the film guards her emotions as if they were precious jewels – finally breaks, tears pushing from actress Flanigan’s eyes as she struggles even to mumble her replies.
That moment makes the question that her cousin had previously asked her all that more apt, not to mention profound.
“Don’t you ever just wish you were a dude?” Skylar asks.
“All the time,” Autumn answers.