It’s been three years since writer/director Eliza Hittman won the Sundance Film Festival’s Directing Drama Award for her excellent feature Beach Rats, and this year, she’s returned to the festival with another quietly devastating, teen-centered drama.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always begins at a high school talent show. After a handful of cheerful acts perform and rile up the crowd, 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) takes the stage, performing a raw, emotional cover of “He’s Got the Power” by The Exciters. She broods to the audience: “He makes me stay when I don’t want to stay / He makes me go when I don’t want to go.” It’s cathartic for Autumn, who seems to be exorcising some internal demon, until an audience member interrupts her performance, shouting “Slut!” At her. Autumn immediately recognizes the culprit. It’s the same boy at the restaurant where she gets dinner with her parents after the show. The one who taunts her, sticking his tongue against his cheek, feigning fellatio. The same jerk who rightfully gets a glass of water chucked in his face by Autumn as she storms out of the restaurant.
The next day, Autumn goes to a health clinic in her upstate Pennsylvania town, where she learns she’s 10-weeks pregnant. The clinic nurse encourages her to consider keeping the child or at least putting it up for adoption. When Autumn floats the idea of abortion, the nurse shows her an archaic pro-life video from the 70s. Autumn researches her options, learning that anyone under the age of 18 is required by Pennsylvania law to have parental consent in order to have an abortion.
Autumn’s sweet cousin Skyler (Talia Ryder) picks up on Autumn’s increasingly distant behavior while working together as cashiers at the local supermarket. One night when they’re changing out of their uniforms in the locker room, Skyler notices Autumn’s has developed marks on her back from her bra being too tight. Skyler later finds Autumn vomiting in the bathroom stall. Autumn dances around telling Skyler the truth about her pregnancy, but the cousins share an unspoken understanding. While they empty their registers, Skyler starts pocketing cash. They book bus tickets to New York City, where Autumn can have a legal abortion unbeknownst to her parents. When they arrive in New York, Skyler and Autumn face a frustrating series of setbacks that extends their trip much longer than either expected or prepared for, forcing them to scrape by with no money and nowhere to stay.
The chemistry Flanigan and Ryder share throughout Never Rarely Sometimes Always is simply arresting. And what’s most impressive is that it’s primarily achieved nonverbally. Simple looks and gestures speak volumes to Skyler and Autumn’s history and their fierce loyalty toward one another, all thoughtfully captured by Hélène Louvar’s immediate cinematography.
Between Beach Rats and now Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Hittman has established herself as a master of the naturalist slow burn. It’s always exciting to be in the hands of a director like her who trusts her audience’s intelligence and rewards their patience. Never Rarely Sometimes Always can certainly be a challenging watch — particularly Autumn’s attempts to self-induce a miscarriage and her watershed pre-procedure interview at the clinic — but for Hittman’s frank, compassionate portrayal of abortion alone, this is essential viewing. It’s haunting work that cuts right to the bone.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always will be released in limited theaters by Focus Features on March 13th.
Donny Sheldon is a Philadelphia-raised, Los Angeles-based, WGA-award-winning writer. He studied Film & Cinema Studies in college at American University and earned his MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s followed the Academy Awards race since he was 10 years-old when his (once) beloved Titanic swept the Oscars that year — although now he’s of the opinion that Boogie Nights probably should have done that. You can find Donny on Twitter and Instagram at @dtfinla