For a long time complex subjects have had to be dealt with in allegory and obscurity, working around their subjects due to commercial and cultural sensitivities. There is a lot of artistic good which can come from that, requiring filmmakers to create subtle and understandable spaces for audiences to fill in rather than having everything laid out in gruesome detail.
But that requirement also means someone will fight against it, will seek to go where no one has been allowed to. Never Rarely Sometimes Always tries to go as far into the reality of a young woman’s life experience as has been placed on film.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a talented teenage girl with ideas about her future and fears about her present, chief of which is that she may have gotten pregnant. Distant from her aggressive and insensitive father, and unable to speak to her mother for the same reason, she decides her only choice is to travel to New York where she can get an abortion without having to inform her parents.
Stymied at every turn by a lack of information, empathy or clarity to help her the only one she can count on is her cousin (Talia Ryder), who daily faces the same endless parade of aggression and male entitlement. As the obstacles mount and the urge to return home increases, both girls have to ask themselves how far they will go to do what they feel they must.
The phrase ‘pull no punches’ is about as hackneyed as we can get in film commentary, but if ever a film deserved it, it’s this one. Taking her cues from the cinéma vérité style that fills so much of independent film (mostly out of necessity), writer/director Eliza Hittman ignores classic characterization or even dialogue in favor of immediacy.
Beyond her immediate circumstance and a few clues we never learn much more about Autumn than her current situation and fears about it. This is very much intentional (and set up for the film’s most powerful scene when its title is explained) because as much as the film is specifically about Autumn and Skyler, it’s not about them at all.
They are cyphers, standing in for a world of teenage girls dealing with grocery store managers who feel entitled to kiss their hands whenever they turn in their tills, schoolmates who think it’s fine to holler derisory names at them during a school production, or strange men who see nothing wrong with trying to get them to share their numbers or go to a party with them. It’s a worm’s eye view of life in a patriarchal hierarchy, and the characters are just vessels for the view.
In place of character, Hittman expends all her energy on the physical reality of that world. The people are hidden but the world is exposed. Exactly what it’s like take a pregnancy test, to try and self-abort through over the counter medication and self-harm, to jump through the bureaucracy built around abortion without resources or any sort of support system.
It’s so difficult even the people who want to help have to treat them awfully in part because there are so many who all the need the same thing at the same time, reducing the most in need to just numbers. When Autumn’s first choice for a provider is unable to help her due to state rules she is forced to follow, Autumn and Skylar (short of money) must find somewhere in New York to stay and pray they can find what they need in the morning as every day away from home brings them closer to discovery.
It is beyond harrowing and though the lack of typical characterization doesn’t give the actors much to play with in terms of long- term motivations or backstory, it makes up for it in the depths of the situations they are in. The characters have clear inner lives but seldom any way to express them beyond a rare odd gesture. This has its drawbacks, both because it requires young actors and little dialogue.
For the most Hittman gets around such problems by letting the actors sound like themselves, like teenagers and twentysomethings navigating their way through complex circumstances without the words to explain what they’re feeling. But sometimes she reaches further than that, trying to get into the depths of their feelings at and the limitations of the actors start to become evident, especially when they get stuck with dialogue that sounds like it came from an amateur short. It becomes ‘acted’ in way which wouldn’t be so evident if the rest weren’t so real.
It wouldn’t be so jarring if there weren’t moments when Hittman does make those sort of classically-acted moments blend with the vérité she’s been using, particularly the wrench climax when Autumn must answer mandated questions about her sex life to prove she is getting an abortion for the ‘right’ reasons. The phrase ‘never rarely sometimes always’ is the answer she can give to anything from how often she’s had sex to how many times she’s been physically threatened. It boils the entirety of the dark side of the modern female experience into four impersonal words in a way that is ultimately worse than anything the film can directly show.
Raw seems like a quaint term to use for such a thing, and yet is likely one to be most thrown about for something like Never Rarely Sometimes Always. And there is rawness, but there is more besides. There is subsumed humanity, buried under more trauma than any person should be forced to deal with and yet refusing to give out. And there is truth about life today which is easily and regularly ignored. It’s not pretty and it’s not comfortable, but it needs to be embraced in all its complexity.