WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
My knowledge of this film sprouted very quickly. I had heard of writer-director Eliza Hittman developing a new project, but I lost touch with it and forgot about it before it came to fruition. As I thoroughly enjoyed her previous film Beach Rats (2017), I knew that I would enjoy her latest feature: Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020).
What struck me was how much I enjoyed it.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells a simple story of a girl who travels to New York to undergo an abortion. On the journey she faces several complications which hinder her plans. On the surface, that’s the entirety of the premise. It’s only when you see the film that you start to uncover the true depth of the filmmaking.
Hittman implements an interesting dichotomy between cinema verité and documentary filmmaking to render authentic emotional responses during the film. The film becomes an absorbing character study that says a lot without using a lot of words. Heavy silences are used across the span of the movie and it works very well in order to understand the naturalism of the characters and the situation. This isn’t a high-strung, emotionally-fraught drama with blistering arguments about the ethics of abortion. It’s a tender look at Autumn’s relationship with both her body and her life as she commits to the choice she has made, despite several obstacles trying to persuade her to reconsider.
Autumn is the focus of this narrative, but her control of her own life only increases as the film progresses. We first see her performing at a school talent show, which is whimsically portrayed until Autumn sings an emotional ballad. The lyrics imply her current station in her life, and it’s a terrific starting point for where she ends up and it really shows the change in her from the beginning to the end. There’s an immediacy to the plot progression that’s interesting to think about when given the lingering camera focus. No sooner than when Autumn and her cousin Skylar agree to head to New York together do they begin their journey.
By this point, there isn’t a lot of conflict within the narrative and it feels like, despite the unplanned pregnancy, everything’s a little bit easy. But the journey to New York offers many different insights into both the pregnancy and an interesting side-plot about how women see men in the world. The trip is where the obstacles lie and they are in abundance once Autumn arrives. Between having to stay longer than she has to, running out of money, and having to deal with a persistent stranger, Hittman’s focus is on the reality of the situation. Real-world implications are the things trying to get in Autumn’s way, as is the case for a lot of women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. There’s no superfluous grandiosity to it, either, the impact is felt fully in the authenticity of Autumn and the narrative.
The film’s pivotal scene is the best I’ve seen so far this year. It’s perhaps the most simple in the movie, yet the underlying implications are emotionally staggering. Autumn is answering questions about herself using the four titular words: Never. Rarely. Sometimes. Always. The polite, reassuring voice of the counsellor asking what seem to be simplistic questions is always in the background. The camera stays solely on Autumn and her one-word responses, but they reveal so much more using the effortlessly poignant debut performance from Sidney Flanigan to reveal more about Autumn in this scene. It’s a heartbreaking scene, again mostly because of the realism of it. Autumn isn’t a “chosen one” type of character who is the subject of a mythical prophecy. She is a young woman who has dealt with a lot in her life. A lot of people watching this will know somebody in Autumn’s position or perhaps will be in Autumn’s position, and that’s what makes it so brilliant. Hittman’s reliance on authenticity works wonders to bring the power of the scene through ordinary dialogue spoken by an ordinary person, using Flanigan’s tremendous performance to bring it home.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is one of the best films of the year so far for all the reasons stated above, but also because it knows exactly what it is, just like Autumn. The self-determination of the protagonist is reflected in the choices made by the filmmakers in regards to the camera placement, pacing, and tone. It’s a rare film that feels like a new light in how we see women on screen and I hope Hittman’s work ripples across the industry and encourages other filmmakers to enact the same methods to evoke similar responses because we need more films like this.