Published on May 15th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman’s Sundance favorite is moving by way of its thorough and concise approach. But does it rise above the candidness of its timely subject matter?
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is about a 17-year-old from Pennsylvania named Autumn who travels to New York with her cousin to get an abortion. Not much more, not much less. That subject matter in and of itself is interesting and worthy of an honest deep dive. But despite its weighty subject matter, it ends up feeling slightly paltry.
The following scene sums up the entire film for me:
The girls go to an arcade to kill time. Autumn plays an arcade version of tic tac toe against a live chicken. She loses.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is clearly straightforward. Even methodical at times. But in the tiny margins between the matter-of-factness of it all–the free creative space that really determines a unique film from a bland one–this movie does stuff like that.
And I don’t know how to feel about it. On one hand, it’s different and memorable to a certain extent. That scene does, in a way, capture the bottled up frustration a girl like Autumn would be facing. On the other hand, the girl is so obviously terrible at tic tack toe that I was left with no choice but to seriously question her intelligence as a character. In that scene she doesn’t feel so fleshed out and real; she seems compromised, forced to be what only makes sense in movie-land. I know this is a huge nitpick, but my point is that a movie like this, one that aims for unbridled realism, should not be playing its movie bullshit card so obviously. It’s impossible not to scrutinize things that don’t seem realistic when the film so blatantly screams at you about how realistic it is. And those unrealistic moments end up standing out as emotional cheap shots.
The core of Eliza Hittman’s film is defined by a strict fidelity to the real experience, to the cold, hard, facts of the female experience in America. It studies it all with Autumn as its lens; her discovery that she’s pregnant, the trip out to New York, all the languid time killing along the way, and the extensive examination/survey they put Autumn through before the procedure–the one the film gets its title from. It promises early and often to be the real deal. Yet the emotional fillings that make up whatever minute cavities are left after brushing so thoroughly are hit and miss. They seem to tesselate between contrived and honest. And so what would seem like a random, innocuous arcade-chicken scene now sticks out as a hammy signifier. When moments like those need to count, this movie often finds itself guessing.
That’s not to say the movie completely fails. That is far from the case. The performances, which ultimately drive the film, are exceptional. Sidney Flanagan plays Autumn and all her insecurities with poise. Talia Ryder plays Skyler, the cousin who props Autumn up like a crutch the whole movie. Ryder makes it very compelling to track where her compassion ends and her wide-eyed curiosity begins. Meanwhile, Flanagan is frustratingly quiet and stone faced throughout the film, committing perfectly to a shell-shocked and jaded Autumn. Her disconnected demeanor plays compassionately against her drive to get what she is entitled to but wants her own way.
One particularly impactful scene involves Autumn punching herself repeatedly in the stomach after getting the positive results; the only confidence she exudes is in her will to make it go away. Scenes of vulnerability like this are often when the performance is most believable, which I’d say is an accomplishment. It’s a dimensional and complex part that involves a lot of eye-acting for Flanagan. Her character probably says fifteen words all movie.
The two are framed in close up for most of the film. Hittman is dead set on locking right into Autumn and Skyler’s standpoint. The camera sways with them as they stumble through New York city. The intimacy elevates that feeling of being forced way in over their heads. Reminiscent of The Dardenne Bros., Hittman invokes documentary film language to extract those extra grains of truth concealed within the small moments that are usually left on the cutting room floor. She also chooses quite astutely when to hold on Autumn and resist the urge to cut. The lengthy interviews she has with the nurses illustrate this well. We hold on her face exclusively so we can witness the minutia of a penetrative, vulnerable experience. We need to see her pain slowly rise to the surface so we can appreciate the true allegiance this film has to the truth. And mostly, this technique hits us with the hard truth quite convincingly.
But it’s a kind of hard truth, a generalized truth that it aspires to capturing in a bottle. All of its information, its candidness, its outrage is completely warranted and believable. But there just isn’t enough meat on the bones to make it rise above seeming like a well-designed pamphlet. Perhaps a necessary pamphlet, but nonetheless thin. It reaches for little triumphs, big moments in small packages. Its emotional climax involves a simple act of Autumn holding Skyler’s hand while she’s being forced to kiss the guy who has the money to get them home. A moment chock-full of yearning but undeniably unnatural looking, the moment feels contrived despite the film making me root so desperately for it not to be.
It has its heart in the right place but ultimately doesn’t have enough great ideas beyond its basic procedural framework to make it stand out. And the ideas it does lay claim to often seem like they are only pretending to be poignant. Its exceptional at being fine, at doing its job. And that job is important and necessary and innately gripping because of the shocking and saddening nature of Autumn’s experience. But can important and necessary completely sustain a film?