Never Rarely Sometimes Always opens with a high school talent show, the first three student acts sticking with safe material reminiscent of the 50s, all the performers dancing or lip synching. Autumn may not have the best singing voice, but as she strums her guitar, the lyrics are riveting. He makes me do things I don’t want to do, makes me say things I don’t want to say, and though I try to break away I know I can’t…He’s got the power of love over me. When a boy calls out “slut,” a hush comes over the audience. Autumn is momentarily stunned, but manages to finish the song. Mercifully, the audience applauds.
Autumn is still trying to recover from what happened on stage when she and her family have dinner at the local pizza parlor. Her mother (Sharon Van Etten), seemingly oblivious to the cry for help Autumn just conveyed with those emotional lyrics, pushes her husband (Ryan Eggold), to complement his stepdaughter’s performance. He does so reluctantly, prompting Autumn to leave. On her way out, she passes a table where the heckler sits and tosses a glass of water in his face. (He had continued to taunt her with gross gestures.)
At home, Autumn undresses and the camera focuses on her stomach. Visiting a women’s clinic in the small Pennsylvania town where she lives, Autumn is surprised that the pregnancy test is the same one she might have purchased herself at the drug store. The test is positive. A nurse administering a sonogram tells Autumn she’s ten weeks along. “Your beautiful baby,” the nurse enthuses, pointing to the black and white images on the screen. She tells Autumn the whoosing noise of the heartbeat is “the most beautiful sound you’ll ever hear.” After watching an anti-abortion video, Autumn leaves with pamphlets about adoption and the birthfather’s rights.
Early reviews for Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always describe it as “an abortion drama.” But the film is so much more than that. Teenage girls are in danger and at risk all over the world. Some, like Autumn, face an unplanned pregnancy, others are being abused, bullied, trafficked, left homeless, or forced to drop out of school. Those brave enough to find their voice, struggle to get someone to listen.
Autumn (first time actor Sidney Flanigan who resembles a young Jodi Foster), finds herself unable to trust those closest to her, most obviously her mother. When Autumn learns that, as a 17 year-old in the state of Pennsylvania, she would need parental approval for an abortion, she decides to travel to New York City.
Autumn’s sole support is her cousin, Skylar (a terrific Talia Ryder). The two work as cashiers at a local supermarket. Turning in their trays at the end of their shift, Skylar surreptitiously pockets several bills to finance their trip to New York. Lugging a huge suitcase, they board a bus and immediately attract the attention of Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), whose invitation to a party downtown raises red flags. Is he luring them someplace where they can be kidnapped and turned into prostitutes? Eventually landing at Port Authority, they manage to shed Jasper, but since he has Skylar’s phone number, he remains a threat.
The clinic staff in New York is professional and empathetic. The film’s title comes from the exercise the social worker conducts with Autumn, asking questions about her past sexual activity, and asking her to respond with “never, rarely, sometimes, always.” The first few are easier for Autumn to answer. “Does your partner wear protection?” But the questions get tougher. “Have you been forced into a sex act against your will?” We begin to see the cracks in Autumn’s exterior when the tears begin to flow.
There are complications. Despite what she was told at the Pennsylvania clinic, Autumn’s actually 18 weeks along, meaning her procedure will take two days, Without money to afford a hotel (the social worker offers, but Autumn declines), the two teens wander the streets all night, fleeing a subway car when a well dressed man exposes himself.
Although both girls used each other as alibis for their mothers, when one day stretches into two, no one calls to check on them. When Autumn panics at one point and calls home, her mother seems surprised and never calls back when Autumn hangs up.
Director Eliza Hittman’s past two films, Beach Rats and It Felt Like Love, were well received and Never Rarely Sometimes Always will certainly win her new fans. Hittman’s strategy to cast relatively unknown actors in her film (the only actor recognizable is Eggold from TV’s The Blacklist and New Amsterdam) works well in this film. After this outing, however, Flanigan and Ryder won’t remain unknown for long.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available for streaming on VOD.
Top photo: Sidney Flanigan (Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features)