Review: 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' is a slow burn that highlights a sad reality
As a wave of states introduced abortion restrictions last year, abortion rights have increasingly come under fire. Now, in the age of COVID-19 — with abortions deemed non-essential in some states — the right to choose is especially pertinent. With this in mind, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a movie that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and can now be purchased on Amazon Prime, is even more timely than it would’ve been just two months ago.
Eliza Hittman’s new film tells the story of Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a young girl in a small town who finds herself desperate to escape her current situation: She’s 17 and pregnant. Through an abortion story where the sentiment lies in the details, Hittman beautifully demonstrates the feeling of fighting for the right of ownership over one’s body. Whether it’s through men grabbing at Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), or those who caution Autumn against an abortion, Hittman relays a clear, powerful critique of society: These girls’ bodies do not belong to themselves, and they know it.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” follows Autumn after a positive pregnancy test. When she learns that she can’t get an abortion in the state of Pennsylvania without parental permission, she and her cousin Skylar pack a suitcase and head to New York. There, they encounter a series of trials and complications.
There were certain points throughout the movie where I felt that the plot was sluggish — I kept waiting for a big, dramatic moment. When was Autumn going to scream about how aggravated she was that she couldn’t get her abortion in Pennsylvania? When was Skylar going to have an outburst about men touching her without her permission? But those moments never came. Rather than have a theatrical culmination of the girls’ frustrations, the movie focused on the slowness, because ultimately, that’s what life is like. The slow-moving process of Autumn’s abortion painted a vivid picture of the real-life struggle many women face to get one. The film avoids melodrama and cliches, instead opting to showcase small details that make the girls more believable as characters.
The movie establishes early on that while these girls may hate their circumstances, they know the reality: They can’t tell men to back off or to not touch them, lest they put themselves in further danger. In one scene, as Autumn and Skylar hand over money stolen from the grocery store where they work, a faceless man kisses their hands. Skylar grimaces as she pulls her hand away, but doesn’t say anything; the girls’ silence is deafening and reflects a common thread throughout the entire film.
Through her excellent camerawork, Hittman accomplishes the difficult feat of communicating without dialogue. For example, as the two girls ride the bus into New York and a stranger’s hand clutches Skylar’s shoulder, the camera lingers on the grasp. Any young female viewer who has had that feeling before, that smallest indication of unsafety, understands Hittman’s intentions. As I watched it, I felt that inexplicable discomfort course through me, feeling myself step into Skylar’s body. The stranger, a young man named Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), weasels his way into their journey with a sense of entitlement to Skylar that makes both the girls, and me, squirm.
The brilliance in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” lies in its subtlety; although Jasper preys on Skylar through delicate touching and sly aggression, he’s not an outward predator. His subtle manipulation ultimately generates a transaction: Autumn paid the clinic for her abortion, but the cousins need money to get home. Jasper gladly offers up the money, but at a cost. When Autumn finds Jasper kissing a motionless Skylar, Autumn holds her hand, thanking her for doing this. In a clear trade, Skylar effectively sells her body to buy back Autumn’s right to her own body.
Hittman’s message is clear: The fact that these young women can’t speak out against these small injustices does not change the fact that these things are unjust. Lack of control or ownership over one’s body is a universal feeling for many women right now, and Hittman’s subtle techniques allow that feeling to permeate the screen and sit next to you in your living room. It’s uncomfortable and sad and real. While you might not want to watch and rewatch this film due to its slow-moving plot, it’s definitely worth your consideration.