Eliza Hittman‘s back catalogue includes It Felt Like Love (2013) and Beach Rats (2017), two films tackling teenage sexuality and the precarious positions young people put themselves in to feel accepted. For 2020 she’s back with another such story, this time juggling an incredibly controversial, moving and – for some – personal – topic, in a measured, affecting, authentic way.
Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn, a teenager living in rural Pennsylvania. A somewhat outcast at school, she relies on the friendship and support of her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), the pair both working at the local supermarket to supplement the family’s lowly income. When she’s not at school or working, she watches her mother (Sharon Van Etten) tend to her siblings’ demands, and Autumn can already see her life laid out in front of her; get married, have children, make dinner, go to bed. Repeat.
It seems Autumn’s life plan may be on fastforward however, when she discovers she’s pregnant. Cupping her rounded stomach, she knew well before the test she takes at a local clinic, but having the evidence sitting in her hand as a small, pink line is daunting. Her situation isn’t helped by the women running the clinic, set on their pro-life agenda, encouraging Autumn to stay and watch a 70s era propaganda video on ‘The Truth About Abortion’.
Soon discovering that she’d be unable to have an abortion in her own town, Autumn confesses to Skylar why she’s been feeling unwell recently, and that she needs her help. Stealing money from the cash register at the end of the day, they purchase two bus tickets to New York, a three-hour journey away but Autumn’s closest option to get the medical treatment she needs, without her parents finding out.
But their trip to NYC isn’t without its own difficulties. Questioned and hounded by a slimy indie kid (Théodore Pellerin) on the bus, the girls then have to tackle the NY subway system before landing on the steps of the clinic. Once inside, Autumn’s told she’d need to come back the following day for the second part of the procedure, as she’s far further along than the women back home predicted she was.
From there we follow the girls as they hunker down for the night, making the noise of NY nightlife their lullaby. Hiding out in subway stations, washing themselves in tiny public bathrooms, walking to stay awake, waiting for the sun to rise and the clinic to reopen. What follows their sleepless night is a highly emotional yet incredibly subtle conversation between Autumn and a social worker, as we’re shown that her pregnancy is just the tip of an iceberg of bad relationships and abuse.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes the premise of ‘teen drama’ and places it in an adult world. The teenagers we see at the start of the story are what you’d expect, immature and obnoxious; Autumn’s not like them, and this is the only glimpse we see of other people her age. From here on out it’s Autumn dealing with adults, yet those we encounter aren’t all that friendly either. Ted (Ryan Eggold) for example, Autumn’s father, is cold, unloving, with one lingering shot suggesting that there may be an element of deeper mistreatment between the two of them.
Once Autumn and Skylar arrive in New York, it feels like the big bad city is going to swallow them whole – the towering skyscrapers letting in little natural light, the loud subway system confusing their already frantic journey to the clinic. The conversation between Autumn and the social worker is full of details you’d be surprised to hear an adult admit to, making us feel so very sorry for Autumn and her life back home. And then there’s Skylar – level headed, sensible, with an understanding that sometimes women put themselves in uncomfortable positions to gain power. Skylar is protective of Autumn, is there for her when she’s needed most, their relationship one of the emotional highlights of the narrative. The final shot of the two of them, sitting in a diner eating fries, shows their return to typical teenagerdom, guffawing and giggling at each other’s silly faces. They’ve coped with an extremely ‘adult’ experience which has come to an end. Now they get to be 17 again.
Watching the film, I felt like I’d seen both Flanigan and Ryder before, but I was wrong. This is Sidney’s first time onscreen, while the film is Talia’s first feature-length performance but the two carry the story so confidently, so believably, while dealing with such an emotive, heavy topic (I thought their IMDb listings were wrong, that they were both missing titles). They’re both destined for bigger things. Meanwhile, writer-director Hittman balances the narrative somewhere between the personal and the political, highlighting the discrepancies in American healthcare and the dangers women – young and older – put themselves in to get the medical attention they need.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is important, maybe now more than ever before. Watch as Autumn struggles to access a procedure she needs, then try to imagine doing so during a locked down pandemic (that’s where my mind went to). How the characters risk their jobs to gather together the money needed to pay for the expensive procedure. The uncomfortable situation Skylar puts herself in to earn just a little more cash, to get them home. They’re teenagers trying find their feet in an adult world, not unlike millions of young people across the globe. Hittman is telling their story; we should all be listening.