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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Following a small-town teen's trip to NYC to obtain an abortion, this naturalistic drama proves as grim and gripping as it is empathetic and affecting.
By Sarah Ward
November 09, 2020
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By Sarah Ward
November 09, 2020
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In the scene that gives Never Rarely Sometimes Always its name, 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) sits with a counsellor at Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn. The teen hails from Pennsylvania, but has taken the bus east with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) upon discovering that she's pregnant and realising she only really has one option — knowing that her family is unlikely to help, and after her local women's clinic has advised that she should just have the baby. Before she can obtain the New York facility's assistance, however, she is asked questions about her history. The queries broach tough and intimate subjects, but Autumn only needs to answer with one of the words from the movie's moniker. While they're simple and common, those four terms explain much about why a small-town high-schooler is engaging in a practice that's been dubbed 'abortion tourism'. So too does the silence that punctuates her responses and the heartbreaking expression on her face that goes with them.

From its opening frames, which sketch out Autumn's everyday life — the taunting peers, the awkward dynamic at home, the attentions of her boss at her after-school supermarket job, and the efforts to be seen by performing at her class concert — Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an intricately observed and stunningly detailed film. Accordingly, when the aforementioned scene arrives, it's the latest potent, compassionate and revealing moment in a movie filled with them. But filmmaker Eliza Hittman refuses to give viewers even the tiniest reprieve here. Autumn can't escape these difficult questions or the entire experience she's dealing with, and the audience is forced into the same situation. Maintaining the feature's unobtrusive, naturalistic, almost documentary-esque style, cinematographer Hélène Louvart (Happy as Lazzaro) doesn't look away, while first-time actor Flanigan pours out an entire lifetime's worth of feeling under the film's unrelenting gaze.

When Never Rarely Sometimes Always premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival back in January, it deservedly won a special jury prize. The next month, it took home Berlinale's Silver Bear, the festival's second most prestigious award. It now reaches screens Down Under as the year approaches its end, and releases less than a week after another movie delivered another immensely uncomfortable moment in a women's clinic. By almost all other metrics and measures, Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm share little in common. And yet, both understand how reproductive rights, or the lack thereof in many cases and places, say much about America today. Both make viewers stare unflinchingly at that reality, the way that it disadvantages half of the population, and the life-changing effect it can have on teenage girls and their futures.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a movie about the politicisation of a deeply personal subject, how that has far-reaching repercussions, and what that means on a daily and practical basis. Making clear exactly what Autumn has to go through to even get to that distressing clinic chat, it's a gut-punch of a film on the topic, in fact. Anchored by Flanigan's instinctual, unaffected performance — one of the year's best, in one of its best films — Hittman's feature surveys the vacant storefronts and empty-hearted locals in Autumn's home town, and the way her mother (Sharon Van Etten) is also trapped in her own way. It watches as Skylar steals the cash needed to finance their trip from the register at work, and shows how the more outgoing teen is unwavering in supporting her reserved cousin. It takes the bus to NYC with its characters, stares out the window at a haze of brown landscape, then rides the subway all night when the pair can't afford a place to sleep in the city. The film meets the men, both overt and in the background, who try to grab the girls' attention, and follows the many choices that need to be made to just get to Autumn's appointment. 'Immersive' is an overused descriptor, but in a movie this meticulous, it fits.

As should be evident from all of the above, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is something else as well: a tale of struggling youth. And as anyone who has seen 2013's It Felt Like Love and 2017's Beach Rats will know, there are few filmmakers better at spinning such stories than Hittman. When it comes to the teen experience, the American writer/director possesses a near-uncanny ability to navigate tense rivers of emotion through highly specific yet also highly relatable scenarios. Rather than focusing on sexual awakenings like its predecessors, Never Rarely Sometimes Always explores the aftermath of a tryst that's never seen or mentioned, but it still firmly belongs in their company. Why Autumn is pregnant is far less important than how she feels, what she's forced to endure and how the world constantly tries to make her choices for her — including by placing her in a parade of fraught situations that will only ever apply to women.

It takes a vast amount of skill to tell this tale in not only a resonant manner, but also a sensitive one. It requires the same talent to ensure that every ebb and flow in Never Rarely Sometimes Always' seemingly straightforward narrative echoes across the screen, illustrating how thematically and emotionally complicated Autumn's plight is — and, by extension, those of the many other teens just like her as well. Doing just that in a movie that lets actions and images speak far louder than its sparse dialogue obviously falls into the same category. Hittman boasts all that skill and talent, and no second or detail is wasted under her guidance. As intimated by its protagonist's name, as taken from the season when the leaves fall, warmth fades and the weather's frostiest period approaches, this is a film about decay, loss and change in multiple ways — and it's as grim and gripping as it is outraged, empathetic and affecting.

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