‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’: The daily ordeal of being a teenage girl in a teenage body
The little moments — many awkward or humiliating — come to life with humanity in this thoughtful adolescent drama
The teenage girls at the center of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” don’t have the luxury of being carefree. Granted, things are a little complicated at the moment we enter their lives: 17-year-old Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) is pregnant and doesn’t want to be anymore. But you get the sense that neither Autumn nor her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder, also a newcomer) have been able to relax, fully, for quite some time, but definitely not since puberty hit.
The world of writer and director Eliza Hittman’s film is an uneasy one for a girl. We meet Autumn at a school talent show. Everyone else is performing goofy, fun acts in groups, but she stands on the stage alone with her voice and her guitar and sings a song of heartache and loneliness. A boy in the audience yells out “slut.” It’s shocking but also not and Autumn merely continues with her song. She doesn’t have many choices in the moment, but “ignore and move on” seems to be her default mode of coping.
Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Eliza Hittman. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing/mature thematic content, language, some sexual references and teen drinking). Running time: 101 minutes. Available Friday on demand.
Over the course of the film there is quite literally not a single man who isn’t a threat to the girls in some way, whether through overt harassment, general hostility, or the even that gray area where the interaction might qualify as socially acceptable but still leaves someone feeling uncomfortable.
This is, of course, a little overly simplistic, but it serves the film well in showing the daily discomfort of merely existing publicly in the body of a teenage girl. Add to that an unwanted pregnancy and the fact of life in a rural Pennsylvania town where abortion isn’t an option and you start to get a sense of why neither Autumn nor Skylar have much reason to smile. Not that anyone asks them to; that would be too cheap a shot for a film this thoughtful.
Autumn attempts to get help near home, but realizes eventually that the women in her town are not exactly supportive of her decision. And so in order to have a choice she and Skylar board a bus to New York, where things don’t get any easier. The first clinic they try won’t terminate past a certain point in the pregnancy. The next option won’t be open until the following day and Autumn and Skyler, not having enough money to spend on a hotel, are only able to wander the cold, wet and uninviting city until morning.
It would be reductive to think of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” as simply an abortion drama. This is a film about class and gender and femaleness and youth and unwanted attention that makes the smallest moments come alive with humanity. Rarely has a filmmaker ever given so much care to show the everyday awkwardness and subtle humiliations of being a woman, from the minor things (like adjusting a bra strap) to the major. The girls navigate subways, bureaucracies and even karaoke rooms and bowling alleys with the fortitude of warriors. Both Flanigan and Ryder should have Hollywood clamoring for them after this film.
This is an easy film to get swept up in, but there is one scene that stands above all the others in its mastery and it’s the one that the title is derived from. Autumn doesn’t have the luxury of letting her guard down for most of the movie, but in this scene a warm and serious woman at the clinic asks Autumn a series of questions that you sense she has never even dared ask herself. Her face fills the frame, masking the emotion until she can’t contain it anymore. It’s cathartic and devastating to see her finally get the attention she actually needs.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” isn’t a flashy movie, but that’s part of its unnerving power. With her empathetic camera and transcendent storytelling, Hittman elevates their story — so ordinary-seeming on the page — to a great lyrical odyssey.