Never Rarely Sometimes Always Review
Eliza Hittman’s Berlinale-award winner, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, has travelled a bumpy road on its way towards reaching the general public, arriving in cinemas just as the coronavirus forced exhibitors to close their doors. While it landed on VOD platforms earlier than expected, producers Adele Romanski and Barry Jenkins believe the viewing experience will remain unharmed and are confident more people will see the film at home than in cinemas. Although attaching such a hefty rental price to a gritty indie like this feels like a big risk given given how tight money is for so many.
The sombre tone of Hittman’s previous work carries through to her third feature, offering an intimate portrayal of a 17-year-old girl dealing with the daunting prospect of an unexpected pregnancy. Newcomer Sidney Flanigan stars as Autumn, who is not only trying to process the daunting changes happening inside her body, but also the buried trauma of sexual assault. While never made explicit, allusions are made to it happening within the family home, and a devastating scene that reveals the title of the film shows the depths of Autumn’s hidden anguish.
After discovering she is pregnant at a local (and underhanded) clinic in her small Pennsylvanian town, Autumn decides that abortion is the only option. But state law dictates she needs parental permission for that to happen and swallowing half a jar of vitamin C pills at home or punching her own stomach (a deeply uncomfortable moment) to induce it are nothing but long shots. Her only real choice is to find the money for a trip to New York where she can undergo a safe procedure. Luckily for her, she finds solace in her supermarket co-worker and cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who gets the funds needed and the two head off for what is supposed to be a quick overnight trip to the big city.
Hittman’s film takes inspiration from the tragic story of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian-Irish woman who died after being denied an abortion at a Catholic hospital in 2012 (six years before Ireland changed the law). Each year hundreds of thousands of American women are forced to travel long distances to receive the care they need and that journey takes up much of the story’s focus. Along the way Autumn and Skylar encounter men of all ages who view them as sexual targets (a theme that while wholly relevant is overcooked by the third or fourth incident) while the girls try to navigate the raw and uncut nature of the Big Apple.
While Never Rarely Sometimes Always attempts to take a neutral stance on the subject of abortion, too often its messaging interferes to detract from the narrative. Autumn is too much of a victim and rarely feels like she has any real autonomy over her life – even though she is receiving the treatment she wants. Similarly, the girls’ interaction with a young guy called Jasper (Theodore Pellerin) in New York doesn’t ring true, especially when their involvement with him reaches its conclusion. By this juncture, the point has already been clearly made about the creepy nature of men willing to pour their eyes and hands over women they desire, and it feels like an unnecessary extension. Add in some religious protesters standing outside the abortion clinic and it turns into a box ticking exercise.
Despite the over-messaging it doesn’t detract from two strong performances. Hittman has a preference for mixing together professional and non-professional performers for added authenticity and Flanigan does well at portraying the fear and confusion she is trying to overcome. Ryder’s character is slightly more confident and she offers a protective arm around her friend and cousin. There’s a humanity to their journey that is genuinely affecting at times, but for all of Hittman’s craft behind the camera, after three films you get the sense that a little guidance in the script area could lead her towards producing something very special. Unfortunately, this isn't it.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to watch on VOD in the UK from May 13.