Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is 17 and anxious. She needs an abortion. But in her hometown in rural Pennsylvania — where we first meet her singing a he-done-her-wrong cover of the Exciters’ “He Got the Power” in a high school talent show — the clinic demands that a minor have parental consent. Since that’s not happening — and her scary attempts to induce a miscarriage by repeatedly punching herself in the stomach also fail — Autumn persuades her cousin and high school classmate Skylar (Talia Ryder) to join her on a bus to New York, where things should go off without a hitch. As if.
For starters, the girls need to steal the money for an abortion from the grocery store where they both work. Autumn’s mother (Sharon Van Etten) and terrifying stepfather (Ryan Eggold) are not options. It’s just two girls, lugging around a shared suitcase that serves as a symbol for the burden they’re carrying up and down subway ramps and through the streets of Manhattan. Want to know what danger is? Try being a teenage girl on her own in America.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a reference to an adviser’s clinical questions at Planned Parenthood about Autumn’s sexual history. The title is explained in a truly devastating sequence, when she is asked to check off such boxes as: “Your partner has refused to wear a condom — never, rarely, sometimes, always. Your partner has made you have sex when you didn’t want to — never, rarely, sometimes, always.” You won’t forget the look on Autumn’s face as her fragile composure slowly and steadily cracks with each answer.
Luckily for Autumn and the audience, the film puts us in the empathetic care of writer-director Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats), who takes the pulse of her characters without judgment or Roe v. Wade speechifying. She never asks her young leads to deliver monologues that explain what they’re feeling; a brief moment in which one applies eye shadow on the other speaks volumes about their bond. The grainy, gritty cinematography of the astute Hélène Louvart (Happy as Lazzaro), broken only when the girls visit an arcade bursting with color and movement, adds to the bleak atmosphere without eliminating the possibility of hope.
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Though Never Rarely Sometimes Always has elements of Romanian filmmaker Christian Mungiu’s harrowing abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in its DNA, the movie largely relies on the eloquent but unspoken bond between two teen girls to pull you in. They, and they alone, are the ones who are nurturing their own healing process while trying to navigate a world of toxic masculinity, cold indifference, and a political system working against their right to choose. And the friendship at the heart of this film, as indelibly portrayed by two brilliant young actresses — Flanigan is a wonder to behold, while Ryder nails just the right notes of supportive and warmly sympathetic — is a thing of beauty. Hittman’s urgent film is an emotional wipeout. It’s hard to watch. It’s also impossible to forget.