Never Rarely Sometimes Always, an Eliza Hittman feature in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category, is a quiet, contemplative film about an unwanted teenage pregnancy. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a stone-faced seventeen-year-old who, upon discovering she is pregnant, travels to New York City with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to have an abortion. What follows is an intimate portrayal of a teenager and her friend navigating the complicated network of gender and relationships, accompanied by a sharp critique of social obstacles to medical procedures.
The film is sparse in dialogue, with ambient sound and a single-note score dominating most scenes. Autumn and Skylar exist around each other, most things going unsaid. Autumn never utters the word “pregnant” or “abortion”, and neither does Skylar. The film dwells on uninterrupted shots, creating even more space and silence. In the titular scene, Autumn is being interviewed by a counselor ahead of her procedure about her relationships. The camera stays close to her face as she answers the interview questions one by one, painfully slow. The scene showcases Flanigan’s sublime performance, as Autumn’s stoic facade cracks and falls for a few moments when she reveals intimate details about her relationship. Nothing about her performance has been disguised by a cut, and Flanigan shines.
The violence of the male presence is astounding. When laid out, Autumn and Skylar do not face much violence beyond what is ‘ordinary’: a man masturbating at them on public transport, a pushy customer, an inappropriate boss. But the discomfort we feel towards any man in the film is palpable, and a perceptive and honest depiction of the calculations women have to make every time they interact with a male stranger: are you a threat? The characters remain wary and alert, never letting their guard down, and we understand exactly why. The film orbits around gendered experiences, and depicts young female excitement – as well as fear – around the discovery of a new (sexual) currency available to them.
The film also provides an important critique of accessibility, with its portrayal of the abortion process refusing to sugarcoat anything. Autumn first visits a pro-life clinic in her hometown who administer a supermarket test and show her an anti-abortion film from the 80s, attempting to discourage her from the procedure. She then travels to a Planned Parenthood in New York – hidden in what appears to be an apartment building – before finally finding herself at a windowless medical clinic with chipping paint and bulletproof glass windows. The first scenes of the film betray no obvious clues as to the time period the film is set in, leading me to initially place the setting in the 70s or 80s, before realizing the film was contemporary. The timelessness serves as a sharp critique of the outdated medical and family planning facilities in the US. The entire abortion process, despite being fairly straightforward one, is immensely arduous. Whilst there are no direct references, Hittman lands clearly on the pro-choice side of the current political debate.
The film possesses few moments of levity; it remains a tense, urgent, intimate portrayal of pregnancy and womanhood throughout. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a hard watch, but a necessary one.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always will be released in North America on 13 March 2020. A UK release date has yet to be announced. Check out the trailer below: