A scene from “Never Rarely Sometimes Always
AT THE MOVIES
The Great Unknown
BY NOAH GITTELL
Movie stars are good, but unknown actors are better. A brilliant lead performance from an unknown actor can suspend your disbelief more easily than a memorable star turn. That’s what happens in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”, a heartfelt social drama that won awards at both the Sundance and Berlin Film festivals. It’s about two unremarkable teen–age girls who spend a long weekend in New York. Their destination isn’t a party spot. It’s Planned Parenthood. The filmmaker Eliza Hittman could probably have lured a young female star to play the lead, but instead she opted for Sidney Flanigan, a first-time actor giving a performance so uncluttered by expectations that it almost feels like a documentary.
Flanigan plays Autumn, a shy teenager who spends her days dodging harassment from various men. From her high school classmate who favors obscene gestures to her boss at the supermarket who refuses to let her go home with an illness because he will “be lonely” without her, her experiences with men deaden her soul and leave little room for joy. Of course, it’s not an exceptional situation. Her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) also works at the supermarket, where she deflects advances from creepy older customers who mistake the mildest bit of chitchat for flirting.
The gears of the story shift when Autumn visits a local women’s health clinic and discovers she’s pregnant. There are no clinicians there, just a pair of nice, older women who give Autumn a basic pregnancy test she could have easily given herself. When they sense she is considering termination of the fetus, they swiftly pivot towards a pre-recorded video that argues against abortion. Autumn can’t be dissuaded, and it’s to the film’s great credit that we never ask why. It’s clear from her demeanor, her family situation, and her social life that she is unprepared for motherhood. Our personal politics drift away, and all we can do is watch and empathize.
As Autumn and Skylar make the bus trip to Manhattan, where the abortion can be performed without parental consent, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” becomes something of a procedural. We watch as Autumn bounces between clinics, trying to find one that fits her needs. We cringe in concern as the two young women try to make it through a night in the city without a place to stay. Every man they encounter appears a potential predator. They seem naive to even attempt this trip, but the film convincingly argues that they have no other choice.
A lesser movie would have played their weekend in New York for tension or even thrills, but Hittman keeps her camera level and her hand steady, using the easy naturalism of her young actors to the film’s benefit. Their untrained subtlety draws us into their inner experience, while the sparse, unfussy nature of the screenplay allows us to see their journey as just another slice of American life.
Yet no prior experience can prepare us for the film’s centerpiece, a long, powerful scene, filmed in one unbroken shot of Autumn as she submits to the clinic’s pre-procedure questionnaire. The counselor gently asks about her previous and current relationships. Autumn says almost nothing, but her steely facade starts to crack, and her face reveals hints of an already-long history of pain and trauma. It’s the purest kind of acting, without cuts, camera movements, or an overbearing score to emotionally manipulate the viewer. Flanigan does that all on her own.
This remarkable scene reveals the film’s deeper message: In America, people discuss abortion as a primary source of pain and trauma, but “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” argues that the real trauma is everything that comes before it. When we meet Autumn, she is already shell-shocked from her daily life experiences. If anything, it’s the kindness and empathy she receives from the other women in her life — her cousin and the professionals at Planned Parenthood — who offer relief from the everyday pains of being a woman.
Still, there are times when the film sinks a bit too deeply into the unspoken experience of womanhood. There are glances between Autumn and Skylar whose meaning eluded me, and as the film gently slides into its final act, it seemed to have run out of things to say. Maybe women in the audience, who can relate more directly to Autumn’s experiences, will feel differently. If this film works slightly better for them than it did for me, that’s okay. It has been the other way around at the movies for far too long.
My Rating: See it in the Theater