Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) is writer/director Eliza Hittman’s follow-up to Beach Rats (2017), and is currently available to rent on VOD as part of the Theater at Home movement the world has seen rise up in the wake of the pandemic theater shutdowns. Not that this film would have had a wide release – so in some ways, being able to see it now is a privilege many in smaller markets wouldn’t have been afforded. To clarify, this film is a privilege as it exemplifies the craft in its cinematic storytelling, performances, and direction.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is singing a song at a talent show when a peer shouts “slut”, causing her to momentarily pause her performance. The song is about the power of love someone is holding over her. Then Autumn, her parents, and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) are at dinner, and her step-father is critical of her attitude and only offers a compliment when her mother prompts it. Autumn leaves and throws a glass of water into the heckler’s face, who happened to also be there eating with friends. The film centers around Autumn and her experience with navigating a difficult time. She thinks she may be pregnant and feels unable to tell her mother – so she seeks answers on her own.
Hittman is able to walk a line where her political perspective is clear, yet manages to not make the film not feel judgemental or preachy. The male gaze towards Skylar and Autumn, as they travel from Pennsylvania to New York City in search of medical assistance to deal with the unplanned pregnancy, is horrifying. Each and every male figure that enters the film seems to view both girls as nothing more than prizes to be won or taken. None seem interested in the girls’ desires, but only what they can offer them.
More importantly, at the heart of the story, is the right for women to choose. That choice refers to their sexual partners, their role in society, their bodies, and their health. The abortion debate is at the forefront early, and is handled deftly by Hittman. However, none of this story would hold any weight if the performances weren’t able to carry it. Fortunately, Sidney Flanigan has a breakout performance in what appears to be her debut feature film. The most powerful scene in this film demonstrates her sheer talent and ability to hold an audience, as the camera lingers in on a close-up as both Autumn and the audience break down.
Ryder gets a little less to do but performs equally as admirably. As the supporting character both in the plot but also in Autumn’s life, Skylar is often at the forefront of unwanted advances by male figures around them. Neither Autumn nor Skyler seems comfortable outright refusing advances, and often kindly try to skirt around them only to find themselves backed into a corner. The talent in these performances rings large, and hopefully, many people will witness how great a tough story can be told in a way that is both engaging and surprisingly encouraging.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always stays with you. You’ll be processing elements of it for days. Even if you didn’t cry during the film, you may be surprised in your replaying it in your mind when you feel tears starting to well up in the corner of your eyes. At least, that was my experience the next day. A film that sticks with you is one that is worth watching. Never Rarely Sometimes Always earns the Must See rating.