Never Rarely Sometimes Always ★★★1/2
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Not ready to be a Mom
“Never Rarely Something Always” is about abortion, while avoiding the “will she/won’t she” dilemma that haunts most abortion films and makes them at once polemical and predictable. The 17-year-old at the center of the film never varies in her decision. “I’m not ready to be a Mom,” she answers when pressed for the reason for her choice.
It avoids the “will she/won’t she” dilemma that haunts most abortion films.
The film follows Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) in her effort to obtain the abortion she clearly has decided she wants, made difficult by her home state of Pennsylvania, which requires parental consent before age 18. After several attempts at self-inducing the abortion, Autumn embarks on a journey from a fictional Ellensboro to New York City, accompanied physically and emotionally by her cousin and fellow grocery clerk, Skylar (Talia Ryder). Aside from the quest to terminate the pregnancy, “Never Rarely” is the story of two small-town girls in the big city without much money, knowledge, or adult support.
The story of two small-town girls in the big city—without much money, knowledge, or adult support
The script is admirably lean—without the usual Hollywood dialogue that reveals what we already know or imagine
The script is admirably lean. Director and writer Eliza Hittman (who directed two episodes of the acclaimed Netflix series about teenage suicide, “13 Reasons Why”) presents teenage angst and trauma without the usual Hollywood dialogue that reveals what we already know or imagine—a slippery slope to the predictable made-for-TV movie. Autumn and Skylar never say much to each other. Missing are the scenes in which Autumn tells anyone she’s pregnant, asks Skylar for help, acknowledges who impregnated her, or describes the abortion itself.
Reprehensible male sexuality is free-floating.
There’s also little backstory to Autumn’s predicament. Some male somewhere made her pregnant, but instead of specifics, reprehensible male sexuality is free-floating: the lout who yells “slut” from the audience as Autumn sings a folk song in a high school variety show; her mother’s husband (it’s not clear if he’s her Dad or Stepdad), who rolls lasciviously with the family dog; the grocery store manager who kisses each girl’s hand as she slides her daily cash drawer money to him; the “suit” on the subway who jerks off in front of them.
The one male who gets some time in front of the camera is Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), a young man on the make whom the girls meet on their bus trip to New York City. On their second night roaming the city, and broke, Skylar reaches out to Jasper, then uses her sexuality to get him to pay their bus fare back to Pennsylvania. In a touching scene, Autumn shows her understanding and appreciation of her friend’s sacrifice when she holds Skylar’s pinkie while she’s letting Jasper kiss and fondle her.
An unwieldy suitcase serves as a metaphor for the burden they carry—and share.
There are a few jarring notes as Hittman molds her script to the tale she wants to tell. There’s no adequate reason for Autumn to reject the Planned Parenthood social worker’s offer to find them overnight lodgings for the two-day procedure—except to make the teenagers spend another night on the streets of the city. Nor is there a good reason for the two to pack one large roller bag for their trip when they could have each carried a backpack; the unwieldy suitcase makes their urban ordeal more exhausting, and it serves as a metaphor for the burden they carry—and share.
These are minor flaws—if, indeed, they are—in one of the better explorations into the teenage psyche. The film has echoes of “Juno” (2007), starring Ellen Page; “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig’s 2017 award-winner with Saoirse Ronan; and 2018’s “Eighth Grade,” with standout young actress Elsie Fisher. In her first film, Flanigan is just as good, and Ryder is quietly credible in her side-kick role. “Never Rarely” is also in the tradition of narratives about inexperienced women in the unfamiliar and threatening big city, again echoing “Lady Bird” and Theodore Dreiser’s classic 1900 American novel, “Sister Carrie.”
A restrained script and Flanigan’s talent for revealing an inner self with minimal affect and few words make the film exceptional.
The words “Never,” “Rarely,” “Sometimes,” “Always” refer to the possible responses Autumn could give when the social worker (an authentic Kelly Chapman) asks about her sexual relationships and the reasons she’s come to her decision. In Autumn’s halting answers and non-answers, there’s only a hint of past abusive relationships. The restraint in Hittman’s script and directing, and Flanigan’s talent for revealing an inner self with minimal affect and few words, make “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” exceptional.
Directed by: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Kelly Chapman
Runtime: 101 minutes