FILM REVIEW – NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS. With Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Theodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman. Rated PG-13 for disturbing/mature thematic content, language, some sexual references and teen drinking. 101 minutes.
The first thing seventeen-year-old Autumn Callahan does after learning she’s pregnant is heat up a safety pin on the gas stove and pierce her nose in her kitchen. She doesn’t explain why, and the movie doesn’t have to tell us. We can already see that this is a young woman’s awkward attempt to assert some sense of control over her body, trying to reclaim a feeling of personal agency after so much has been taken away. Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s extraordinary third feature NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS has a lot of scenes like this, where the characters are revealed through their actions instead of dialogue. It’s a small miracle of inferences and implicit understandings.
Played by the remarkable first-timer Sidney Flanigan, Autumn is a typical teen in run-down rural Pennsylvania, working at the local chain supermarket and coming home to an abusive dad who sulks in the other room with what appears to be an endless supply of insults and cigarettes. Her slightly more worldly cousin and co-worker Skylar (Talia Ryder) dodges party invitations from creepy older guys in the checkout line, while they’re both relentlessly harassed by the store’s sketchy manager. It’s Skylar who puts together what needs to be done, silently packing an oversized suitcase. There’s no place for Autumn to get an abortion in rural Pennsylvania.
After a harrowing tour of what passes for women’s health clinics in such communities — with their chintzy store-bought pregnancy tests, legalese lectures and Christian propaganda videos – the two girls steal away in the dead of night with a fistful of crumpled cash swiped from the supermarket register drops. They’re headed to a Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn, dragging along behind them that large, clunky luggage that serves purposes less practical than metaphorical. The film could easily have been a hectoring screed – an Afterschool Special about young women’s rights, preaching to the converted how laws that claim to make teenage girls safer only serve to endanger them further.
Fortunately for us, Hittman’s approach is entirely experiential. She nestles the handheld camera up close to her actresses’ faces until we can read behind their eyes, inside their souls. Autumn and Skylar don’t talk much, and they don’t have to. We’re not told anything about what their lives were like before the movie began, and we never even learn who it was that got Autumn pregnant. It doesn’t matter because the film exists in the same moment-to-moment, here-and-now headspace as our heroines, just trying to overcome the latest obstacle before the next one comes along, with no time to take a larger view. (Helene Louvart’s gorgeously grainy, cramped cinematography complements the characters’ tunnel vision.) The film feels like a cousin to the Romanian New Wave masterpiece “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days” by way of Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy.”
It’s such a gratifying feeling when a filmmaker you’ve been following for some time finally knocks one out of the park. I fell hard for Hittman’s debut “It Felt Like Love” at Sundance seven years ago, one of those surreal, only-at-a-film-festival afternoons where everyone from the film you’ve just watched suddenly streams into the bar you’re drinking at. Her follow-up “Beach Rats” won directing and jury awards at the same festival four years later, with “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” earning a Special Jury Award for “Neorealism” at Sundance this past January, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
I kid because I worry that such a label gives short-shrift to the artfulness of Hittman’s technique, the skill with which her subtractions become additions in the audience’s imaginations. One need only look at the astonishing centerpiece sequence from which the film takes its title, a locked-down reaction shot of Autumn while a nurse reads through a required questionnaire. Flanigan’s face takes us through an astounding array of emotions, her hardened shell of teenage diffidence cracking and giving way, but only for seconds at a time that reveal her entire world. It’s as stunning a scene as you’ll see all year, breathtaking in its stripped-down simplicity.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” was at the start of a slow theatrical rollout when cinemas were closed due to the coronavirus. Distributor Focus Features’ parent company NBC/Universal has just put the movie out on Premium VOD for $19.99. Though slightly cheaper than a pair of movie tickets, this is still an admittedly steep charge for a low-budget indie, especially considering how other arthouse distributors are charging far less for rentals and splitting the proceeds with your local theaters. (God forbid a struggling little company like NBC/Universal share the wealth.)
Still, I’m happy that the film is at least able to be seen. One of the most important things that movies can do is show us our world through the eyes of another. Far too many people –especially lawmakers—see young women like Autumn and Skylar as abstractions or statistics, pawns to be used in political games. They’ve never stopped to imagine things from any perspective besides their own. A couple of guys I know have complained about the depiction of men in this film, about how there always seems to be a masturbating weirdo in the subway car or a leering creep lurking around every corner. They’re uncomfortable with how unsafe these girls are made to feel in average, everyday situations, which I believe is exactly the movie’s point.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.