Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
There’s a seventeen year old girl, getting an ultrasound. The look on her face as the sonographer spreads the gel over her baby bump can only be described as detached terror. The sonographer, oblivious that this is the worst moment of the young woman’s life, chirps at her: “This is the most magical sound you will ever hear.” Then we hear the echo of life as we join the girl’s face in turning away. Finally, the scene has turned from coldly sad to overwhelming. In one of the most daring moments in recent cinema, the sound of a baby’s heartbeat is allowed to be menacing.
The pregnant teen is Autumn. For the runtime of Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” her pain is our pain. Her loneliness is our loneliness.
We are her eyes, watching her absorb pain and humiliation with the same angles she will be using years down the line when she reflects on who she was, how brave she had to be, and who she is now. The camera turns the viewer into a personal history.
There are bits of dialogue in here, but almost none of it is for character development. What is necessary to know about Autumn and the decisions she makes is conveyed by Hittman’s direction, Hélène Louvart’s cinematography, and the strikingly original actress Sidney Flanigan, making her screen debut. We don’t learn everything, but we learn enough. Autumn’s home life is abusive. She’s slut-shamed at school. She works a miserable job at a supermarket.
What launches us into “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is Autumn’s decision to get an abortion. We can interpret why she’s getting one (and there’s several uncomfortable scenes involving DIY attempts that tell us just how badly she doesn’t want a baby), but Hittman doesn’t want to draw our attention into a mystery; she instead aligns us with Autumn’s goal, and by doing so makes her cause so naturally sympathetic that we don’t treat abortion with the same “This is going to scar her life forever” gravity that we do with other films. Yes, the journey we’re on is sad, but not once does Hittman ask us to pity Autumn.
What journey, you ask? Autumn finds out that she can’t get an abortion without parental consent in her Pennsylvania town, and if the first 20 minutes of the film tell us anything, it’s that her parents can’t be counted on (interestingly, one of them is played by Sharon Van Etten). To get one independently, she’d have to trek to New York, something she’s too broke and too alone to do. Confiding in her only friend, her cousin and coworker Skylar (Talia Ryder in a brilliant, shining-light role), they steal cash from the supermarket registers (when you see what they put up with there, it won’t seem like such a crime) and buy a bus ticket to New York.
One of the naturally great things about Hittman’s writing is how much it tells us about the complications of getting an abortion without making it seem like a series of political statements. She lets us see through pure visual storytelling how the system does everything to try and shame women out of a life-altering decision, letting us focus on faces and expressions and details rather than laborious explanations.
We’re flowing at the same uncertain pace the characters are; wondering if they’re lost, wondering where they’ll sleep, wondering if they have enough cash just to eat. Where so many movies have weeks and months elapse between scenes, the editing by Scott Cummings connects everything into one emotionally exhausting, sleepless event, which is by no means a new strategy, but feels refreshing, original, and even a bit exciting here.
I cannot say I was as blown away as most critics. This is currently the highest scoring movie of the year, but at no point was I moved to tears. I felt like I watched Autumn and Skylar, but never grew to know them. While I understand this was part of the artistic approach, I was left wanting by the extraordinary presences of both Flanigan and Ryder, which are so constrained by the reality Hittman wants to achieve that we never get a good chance to hear the sound of their hearts. Their desires, hopes, and dreams are cast aside so we can appreciate them as two ordinary teenagers, but it is possible to have ordinary, realistic characters still be magnetically interesting.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” aims to burrow into your thoughts. You will probably find yourself haunted by scenes that will replay in your head, and it is in those moments of unshakable imagery that Hittman’s film is at its strongest. I wish we could have spent more time breathing in the lives of these characters, as their depth never goes beyond the kind you see in a short film, but Flanigan and Ryder still give performances that are must sees.
Because of COVID-19, you can now watch this movie on VOD.