If there's a blessing amongst the mess that has become the cinemagoing experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's that almost every major studio film has been delayed. As a result, bored audiences with far more time on their hands need to dig further for the latest, often smaller cinematic gems which may not have had a chance to shine while under the shadow of, say, a new Disney live-action remake or a new Christopher Nolan thriller. Audiences need look no further for one of these gems than 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always', a quiet but powerful indie hot off a successful run at the Sundance Film Festival (remember film festivals? Yeah, I miss them too) earlier this year.
The premise of the film is simple; Autumn (singer-songwriter Sidney Flanigan), a quiet 17-year-old, finds herself pregnant and enlists her cousin and workmate Skylar (Talia Ryder) to trek with her from Pennsylvania to New York for an abortion. Of course, this plot is sure to ruffle the feathers of more conservative viewers (the film has been review-bombed by pro-lifers on aggregate website Metacritic), but when afforded the patience and attention it deserves, 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' transforms into so much more than just its plot. Autumn never once considers carrying her pregnancy to term; it's just something to take care of within a health care system which seems set against her having the right to choose. The film never once preaches the "my body, my choice" mantra either, and it's so incredible to see an American film forego these type of moments. In doing so, director Eliza Hittman ('Beach Rats') asserts that of course it's Autumn's right to choose what she does with her body, especially given the less than respectful sexual encounters Autumn has found herself in. In fact, almost every male character in the film is a special breed of creep, her peers making obscene gestures and slut-shaming Autumn in public. Never does Autumn waver in her determination to just get her pregnancy over with, despite attempted coercion from those at her local crisis pregnancy centre (a scene involving heartbeat detection can only be described as horrific gaslighting).
Much like the excellent workplace drama 'The Assistant', it's what isn't being said that is most potent here. Autumn's coming-of-age tale is far less conventional in that she isn't given a wise older confidante to propel her growth or a romantic interest; the film doesn't feature an antagonist. In fact, Autumn is one of the most truly isolated teenagers in recent cinematic memory. She knows this too, choosing to travel to New York for the abortion lest getting her distracted parents involved in the process (parental consent, Autumn discovers, is necessary for the procedure in her hometown). Riding the subway through the night because she has no money for a place to sleep in New York seems like a far better alternative. By taking her cousin along with her - someone she knows well - Autumn doesn't need to painfully rehash the circumstances in which she's found herself. There's an unspoken understanding between Autumn and Skylar, and the bond between Flanigan and Ryder feels like the actresses have known each other for years. An unfortunate side effect of this is that large gulfs between dialogue rob audiences of enough interaction to fully buy into or understand their bond; however, the omission of additional dialogue adds to the authenticity of the story, forgoing the contrivedness of unnecessary exposition. Audience comfort is not a priority here.
Despite being just over halfway through the year, talks of Flanigan's performance as one of the year's strongest feels both fitting and well deserved. She carries a world of hurt behind her blank facial expressions that honestly had me shocked this is her first acting role. Flanigan turns Autumn into the living embodiment of "suffering in silence", verbalising her pain only in a performance for her school's talent show. Listen closely to the song's lyrics, which directly correlate to the abuse Autumn has suffered at the hands of her sexual partners (which she refuses to accept out loud), and the increasing control her country has over her reproductive rights.
'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' is a heartbreaking and powerful experience.
None of the many abortion restrictions implemented across America in 2019 are addressed by name, and 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' never gets political. Instead, it aims to paint a portrait of the new daunting reality of these laws. Hittman knows better than to make melodrama or tragedy of the story she is trying to tell, showing hyperawareness and respect for the increasing commonality of such trips young women take to receive basic healthcare. It almost acts as a documentary, clearly and matter-of-factly presenting the complicated process Autumn has to go through. Hittman never once dramatises Autumn and Skylar's trip to make her film more compelling, instead challenging the audience to find beauty in the mundaneness of a really shitty situation. This sparseness also extends to the film's visual style, keeping moments of saturated colouring to a minimum and locking the camera squarely on Autumn for most of the film, trapping her, whether she likes the attention or not. The audience never actually learns anything about Autumn beyond the fact that she's pregnant and miserable, and it's up to her body language and facial expressions to assist in filling in the rest.
The film's climax is one of the most authentic portrayals of raw pain I've seen in a film all year, and once the film's title is understood within context, it's impossible not to feel your heart shatter and your teeth clench. The ordering of the words in the film's title is also important; rather than the reverse, which may sound more appealing, it makes perfect sense within the context of the film's major themes. This order also reflects the answers to a harmless questionnaire a counsellor gives to Autumn about her physical and mental health. Autumn's reluctance to let anyone in about her sexual history ("never") is betrayed by her own body language and the obvious suffering she has gone through ("always"). Her silence answers the questionnaire for her, even if she refuses to with her own words, and despite the lack of action, the scene packs as much tension as a big-budget thriller.
If 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' could be summed up in one word, it's "compassionate". It is a heartbreaking and powerful experience that should be considered one of the year's most essential watches. Despite being incredibly subdued, it is never boring, and its commitment to authentically tell an all-too-common story only adds to its power.