The debate around reproductive rights in America has raged for decades. Last year, several US states passed new laws which human rights watchdog Amnesty International claims “effectively ban abortion”. As a result, writer-director Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which follows a 17-year-old’s harrowing, soul-sapping attempt to terminate a pregnancy in New York City, feels even more timely than usual. Hittman’s powerfully acted drama is an urgent message transmitted with the utmost simplicity.
Autumn (played by newcomer Sidney Flanigan) is a high schooler living in Pennsylvania. Her life is fairly average: she goes to school and performs at talent shows; she eats at diners with her loving mum and domineering, traditional dad; she works at a grocery store with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), where both must put up with the creepy voyeurism of their manager. A bout of morning sickness compels her to see their small town family doctor, who administers a store bought pregnancy test. In an exchange with the doctor lies one of the film’s welcome moments of levity, a prime example of Hittman’s witty dialogue: “A negative result could be a positive,” she tells Autumn, “but a positive is always positive.” The confusion is irrelevant, she’s pregnant.
Unfortunately for Autumn, Pennsylvania State law forbids minors under the age of 18 from proceeding with an abortion without their parents’ consent. For obvious reasons, Autumn wants to keep this very personal matter to herself. So, with a bundle of dollar bills lifted from the store till and a hefty suitcase full of clothes, she and her cousin catch the Greyhound bus down to NYC, in one of the few states where parental consent is not required.
This is Hittman’s third feature and is infused throughout with her ‘less-is-more’ mantra. Similarly to fellow festival darling First Cow, by director Kelly Reichardt, the film basks in bittersweet stillness. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s camera knows exactly where the story’s most emotional moments lie – and she expertly finds poignancy in the touch of hands, or in lingering on Flanigan’s subtle expressions for just a few seconds too long. Parts of Hittman’s last feature, Beach Rats, succumbed to melodrama, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always is never less than perfectly measured – a testament to her increasing maturity as a filmmaker.
Bolstering the emotional potency is the abundance of compassion in Hittman’s directorial approach. No unnecessary judgement is bestowed on Autumn, and sex is treated with the normality it deserves. What the film does seek to highlight, via cat calls, unsettlingly forced kisses, and apathetic strangers, is the dangerously patriarchal world in which Autumn and Skylar live. But, again, Hittman’s statement is not dogmatic, and it allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions. The strength of Hittman’s voice adds weight to the stylistically sublime visuals. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a beautiful, emotionally draining movie that’s up there with 2020’s best.
- Director: Eliza Hittman
- Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin
- Released: May 13 (VOD)