Abortion and rape culture are true hot topic subjects for film right now especially with the emergence of the #MeToo movement over the past few years but while these are worthy topics of discussion they often come off as manipulative regardless of which side of the debate the movie in question comes from. I had similar fears for a newly released, much talked about arthouse picture on Amazon called “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” which bypassed wide theatrical screenings due to the COVID-19 pandemic and instead debuted this weekend right in our living rooms. Directed and written by Eliza Hittman and staring fledgling big screen actresses Sydney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” earned early critical acclaim at Sundance and the 70th Berlin International Film Festival before making headlines for its subject matter in a time where the topic is certainly very relevant. Does it deserve the praise or is it just another abortion film with an agenda? Let’s take a look at just how well this arthouse independent production captures its controversial themes. This is my review of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”.
This movie is certainly not an easy viewing experience but don’t assume that means it’s a bad film. On the contrary this is by far one of the best movies in the early months of 2020 even in spite of the limited competition due to the conoravirus. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” navigates the divisive ground of abortion in America as it focuses on two cousins traveling to Manhattan so that one of them can get an abortion without her parents knowing about it. What results as a spectacularly human and mesmerizingly real examination of one young woman’s experience in seeking out the abortion without ever taking things to such a level where the film is preaching righteousness for either side of the debate. Instead “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” puts the focus squarely on this one young woman’s journey with attempts to be a more character focused narrative rather than hammering home the rights and wrongs of those for or against abortion rights.
Sidney Flanigan is captivating as Autumn, the 17-year-old seeking the abortion, while Talia Ryder supports her as Autumn’s loyal cousin Skylar. Both actresses bring nuance and layered believability to their roles especially Flanigan who never really feels likes she’s acting. Most of the time you could genuinely believe she herself is undergoing this experience rather than pretending. It adds to the raw nature of the narrative which sees Autumn experience everything from an anti-abortion video to protests outside of the clinic, abortion nurses asking her questions about her love life and having to manage the finality of deciding whether or not an abortion is a good idea. The whole film is squarely focused on how Autumn experiences these events and Flanigan’s subtle performance rarely hints at whether or not she truly believes she’s doing the right thing, even when she finally makes her decision. It leaves a lot of interpretation open for the viewer to decide the ethics of her decisions and motivations never painting anyone as a true bad guy but rather painting a picture of one person’s very personal journey and all of the things that are thrown her way to try and influence her.
If there’s anything bad to say about this movie it might be that it’s a true slow burn that probably goes a little longer than it should, but that too works to the film’s advantage if you’re patient enough to embrace it. The story takes place over several days in New York with the two cousins being scrapped for cash and having no place to stay. Seeing them interact drives home and important element of any life choice, a powerful support system. Despite a few hiccups and spats Skylar and Autumn stay true to each other even though the trip is only actually significant to one of them. Add this to the list of great subtle ideas thrown into the mix as “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” not only captures the complexity of making such a hard life decision, but also the significance of having someone to turn to and support you through that time without judgement. This is an important element of these kinds of stories that’s often overplayed or underappreciated in similar films but this movie manages to capture the right balance showing its lead characters test each other and support each other through and through.
Another interesting detail is that almost everyone that the two girls interact with is a woman, including the hospital personnel, which was a nice touch, but the main exception was one man named Jasper, played by Théodore Pellerin, who becomes interested in Skyler. He himself is meant to represent the dominating masculinity of American society that adds to the struggle for women to have their own choices or feel safe and secure even in our modern world. And yet he’s not a villain. He actually comes off mostly innocent with his rapey vibes being played off more as a product of our own interpretations than his definitive nature. He could just be a nice guy who thinks Skyler is cute or he could have ulterior motives. It should be noted that he even asks Skyler her age which she lies about. However, like the debate over the abortion, we, the viewers, are meant to decide whether he is trustworthy or not with the character designed, acted and directed to mostly leave his personality and true intentions ambiguous. The whole movie is like this, throwing small details at the viewer without spoon-feeding interpretations and as a result it all feels like a collection of moments stripped right from the real world. This whole movie depends on the natural awkwardness, danger and opinionated culture of our world to drive home the drama of its story and Autumn’s experience. Its that fact that really makes this a worthy and significant viewing experience and makes characters like Jasper and Autumn more complex than most films would dare to attempt.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is an amazing motion picture. It takes skill, commitment and careful precision to craft a movie about such controversial themes with so much tact and understanding and not come off as manipulative. Director/writer Eliza Hittman shows her talent for capturing her young characters’ innocence, bravery and insecurities all at once while using a focused narrative to pace the story in a way that allows many different parts of this difficult journey to shine. It’s hard for a film with so much to say to feel so honest, human and real without taking things too far. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is certainly of the best cinematic efforts of the year to date thanks to its willingness and ability to capture the human experience through a divisive decision rather than force feeding and agenda which it could have easily done. This is modern indie cinema at its finest.