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Review: Never Rarely Sometimes Always Is a Triumph of Casual Provocation

Driven by the potency of its social intentions, Eliza Hittman’s film is so authentically felt that it becomes hyper-real.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Photo: Focus Features

Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a slice of life in a neorealist vein, is a bravura depiction of the social barriers that get in the way of women asserting their agency. Quiet and perpetually dressed in a hoodie, 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is first glimpsed at her Pennsylvania high school’s ‘50s-style talent show performing a cover of the Exciters’s 1963 hit “He Got the Power,” whose lyrics include “He makes me do things I don’t want to do/He makes me say things I don’t want to say.” Between this, the barbershop quartet at the ready, and the students dressed as Elvis Presley, Hittman pointedly ironizes an ostensibly enlightened present’s nostalgia for a regressive past.

Autumn is increasingly detached from her family, including her mother (Sharon Van Etten). She only really connects with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), with whom she works at a grocery store where everyone, including their manager, leers at them. Soon, a pregnancy test confirms what Autumn had already suspected. We don’t know who the father is, and that doesn’t really matter. After reading a few adoption pamphlets, and trying to induce a miscarriage by brutally punching her belly, Autumn decides to have an abortion. But there’s one problem: In Pennsylvania, a parent is required to give permission for an underage person to have the procedure. And so Skylar and Autumn steal from the cash register at work and grab a Greyhound to New York together, where an abortion should be slightly easier to obtain.

After the bus soars past post-industrial Pennsylvania and heads into a tunnel, plunging Never Rarely Sometimes Always into momentary darkness, we’re teleported to Manhattan, and the effect is nothing less than electric, redolent of the entry into the Zone from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Hélène Louvart’s 16mm cinematography never smacks of easy nostalgia, as there’s a distinctly modern quality to the grain and flattened colors of the film’s images. There’s a limber quality to the handheld camerawork, a delicacy to the way it almost seems to caress characters’ faces. As envisioned here, New York suggests an alien world, the shallow focus reducing figures on busy sidewalks to glowing shapes of various colors.

Plagued by setbacks, Autumn and Skylar have to stay in the city overnight, and as they have no money for a hotel, they’re forced to sleep inside bus and subway stations. It’s as if the city is turning against them, but when they find a late-night arcade, there’s a pointedness to the kaleidoscopic presentation of the scene. Here, Hittman’s sensuous filmmaking stands in sharp contrast to the harshness of the subject matter, as she neither loses sight of the miserable nature of Autumn and Skylar’s situation nor their desires for more than just security. These are two very normal girls, and their ordinariness, as they struggle to navigate spaces that are built for men to stare at women from behind one-sided mirrors, or to trap them behind a cash desk, underscores the life they can’t have. But the arcade, with its Dance Dance Revolution machine and Tic-Tac-Toe-playing chicken, still offers them a kind of escape.

Hittman’s dreamy coming-of-age stories at times suggest something from the Larry Clark school of provocation, where a certain penchant for transgression comes at the expense of verisimilitude. But the strength of this film is that its transgression comes from the shock of how the abortion system works. How each thing that ostensibly keeps people safe is harmful in a different way. Use your invaluable health insurance, and the procedure will show up on your parents’ statement. Spend the stolen cash to pay for it instead and you can’t buy a ticket home. This approach might be didactic at times, but Hittman’s screenplay manages to capture the interlocking effects of wider, separate issues with impeccable precision. Medicare for all, toxic masculinity, the working class, pro-lifers, homelessness, and privatization of public space—all are gestured to without moralizing or pontificating. It’s all in service of character.

The political centerpiece of the film is the scene that gives it its title, in which Autumn is made to respond to “personal questions” with the answers “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “always.” It’s then that she can go through with her abortion. All of the questions involve increasingly violent situations with men. And in one elongated close-up, the extent of Autumn’s experiences to date are painfully suggested across her face. “I want to make sure you’re safe,” says the counselor, who’s literally only looking to check the right boxes and send Autumn on her merry way. Driven by the potency of its social intentions, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is so authentically felt that it becomes hyper-real, a nightmarish disquisition about how entire systems are rigged against women that would feel academic if it didn’t play out against earnest performances of tender teenage emotions.

Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten Director: Eliza Hittman Screenwriter: Eliza Hittman Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 101 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020 Buy: Video

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