Never Rarely Sometimes Always (United Kingdom/United States, 2020)

April 02, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Never Rarely Sometimes Always Poster

To call Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always “an abortion movie” is to do it a disservice. Not that such a description would be inaccurate – the film presents one of the most detailed, non-judgmental autopsies of the controversial medical procedure I have seen in a (feature) film. However, one could make a case that even more important than the abortion is the bonding that occurs between the introverted, sullen main character, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), and her sunnier, more practical cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder). The beating heart of Never Rarely Sometimes Always isn’t Autumn’s struggle with terminating her pregnancy; it’s the way the two girls discover companionship and the strength it offers.

The early scenes of Never Rarely Sometimes Always offer some of the staples of teen/high school movies before the narrative deviates into singular territory. There’s a high school talent show, an after-pageant dinner during which an unsettled family dynamic is revealed, and a recognition that Autumn is a rebel without a cause. She soon finds one, however, when a visit to a clinic confirms a pregnancy fear. Autumn doesn’t wrestle with the decision to have an abortion; she knows she’s not ready to be a mother and fears the stigma in her rural Pennsylvania town associated with carrying a child to term, even if it’s for adoption. She doesn’t tell anyone although her observant cousin, Skylar, figures it out. The two hatch a plot to travel to New York (Pennsylvania law requires parental consent for an abortion) to get the deed done. The trip and its consequences are more daunting than either one imagines when they first board the bus.

Hittman’s attention to detail is one of the reasons why the movie works as effectively as it does. Her dialogue is sparse; she relies on close-ups and the actors’ expressions to convey emotion. The characters and places in the film feel lived-in. The local clinic where Autumn learns of her pregnancy is both underfunded and operated by women with limited training. Instead of performing a blood test, they give the girl what’s commonly referred to as a “pee-stick.” (Autumn asks if it’s the kind she could buy in a grocery store and they confirm that it is.) When she indicates that termination is a consideration, she is shown an anti-abortion documentary.

The New York scenes convey the immenseness of the big city to the small town girls. Everything about it is bigger, brighter, and more frightening. They meet a young man, Jasper (Theodore Pellerin), who does little to hide his interest in Skylar. They young woman uses that interest to obtain money for return bus fare. Jasper perhaps doesn’t get everything he wants but a secretive make-out session is enough for him to capitulate. Hittman presents this in a straightforward fashion, never condemning Sklyar for what she’s offering or Jasper for his eagerness.

Perhaps the most distinctive differences between Never Rarely Sometimes Always and other films that advocate the importance of choice are its tone and the way in which the narrative develops. The movie not only eschews a preachy approach but avoids the kind of melodramatic elements that viewers have come to expect from “issue films.” That’s not to say Never Rarely Sometimes Always lacks a strong emotional component. The scene in which Autumn is given a questionnaire (the multiple-choice answers to which form the title) is wrenching. Without saying much, the character reveals a lot. Although we never learn the identity of the father (it’s not germane to the story), some disturbing things are revealed when Autumn avoids the absolutes.

For her leads, Hittman has cast newcomers and both give strong, credible performances. Sidney Flanigan in particular should be able to use this role as a springboard to future appearances. Put her alongside Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace), and Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) as fresh-faced actresses who have made the most out of a first starring role. Her chemistry with Talia Ryder offers a warmth that stands in contrast to the film’s more difficult elements and Autumn’s glum nature.

Although it would be disingenuous to claim Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t have a political position, the film is made with such care and focus on the particulars of the situation (rather than melodramatic tropes) that one doesn’t have to agree with Hittman’s perspective to be moved by the film. After taking home prizes at both the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival and the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Never Rarely Sometimes Always had its theatrical run derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Focus Features has elected to make it available as a first run video-on-demand selection and, for those with a taste for serious, non-prefabricated dramas, this is worth seeking out.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (United Kingdom/United States, 2020)

Director: Eliza Hittman
Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Theodore Pellerin
Screenplay: Eliza Hittman
Cinematography: Helene Louvart
Music: Julia Holter
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2020-04-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Adult Themes)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1