Never Rarely Sometimes Always

United States, 2020

Directed by Eliza Hittman

With Sidney Flanagan (Autumn), Talia Ryder (Skylark)

She is in a phase, her mother claims. Clearly the teenager is sullen and cross, she does not feel well and the trouble is that she may have a hunch about the cause. She tentatively goes to a Planned Parenthood center and takes a test. The outcome is unequivocal: she is pregnant, what she obviously did not want to be but feared to be. She quickly realizes the facility she has elected in her small Pennsylvania town is not going to provide the help she yearns for. So with the silent and rock-solid support of her cousin Skylark she travels to New York to perform an abortion.

Their stay in the Big Apple proves harder than what Autumn bargained for: it turns out her pregnancy is 18 weeks and not 10, which implies she has been deliberately deceived to thwart any abortion while pretending to care for her and help her. That means a more complex, painful and expensive procedure and wandering aimlessly across the busy city for a longer time. The two teenagers still raise to the challenges and Autumn can move back home after taking care of her body as she wished, fully aware of her choice but proud of her ability to make that decision on her own, despite the social pressure.

Facing a tough decision in a tough world: Sidney Flanagan

Shot in a cold, dull cinematography which suits both the somber topic the film deals with and the winter season when the story takes place, the third feature of director Eliza Hittman has a sober, realistic edge that both keeps away any distraction and make the lead character even more relatable. Quietness is paramount: few words are exchanged between the cousins before they embark on the fateful New York trip – the sense of solidarity displayed by Skylark is amazingly instinctive, graciously deeply-felt, absolutely effective. The unsmiling, slightly tense of Autumn perfectly captures without bathos the travails she faces as the worst case scenario for such a teenager befalls on her. Her efforts to find a solution are summed up by silent scenes where she nervously googles information and tries futile tricks. That silence also means that few information transpires about what her life has been.

This apparent shortcoming actually allows the film to reach a powerful, devastating climax at the most unexpected moment – an interview with a social worker who must ask questions about Autumn’s sexual life that need to be answered according to the possibilities that give the film its title. The changes Autumn’s composure experiences become heartbreaking and slowly a personal tragedy comes across as the real reason for that unwanted pregnancy. It is hard to watch, if only because it delivers on-screen such a deep, genuine intensity, truthfulness – but what is suggested dovetails with the wider pattern surrounding the quest for body freedom of the two cousins.

Male are unremittingly painted as a deplorable quantity. The talent show put on by the students of the high school Autumn attends and opening the film has already pointed to a malaise: not only the boys perform in rather dumb ways, making the performance of Autumn all the more remarkable, but another guy would find it funny to abuse Autumn as she sings; and the meal concluding the party highlights the real contempt her father have for her. The rest of the events just follow suit: from the lecherous supermarket manager employing the cousins, always trying to grab their hands to kiss them, to the congenial teenager who is keen to help them in New York, essentially with the hope of sleeping with Skylark, men are of the predatory kind – if not, like a subway employee or security guards, they are curt and indifferent. Only the all-women staff of the reproductive rights center handling Autumn’s case are fully supportive (of course). And that is why the support of Skylark is so important, and effective – they are cousins, but they stand for a deep, moving sisterhood that helps them navigate the troubles they meet in New York (and this is not a one-way effort, as the film shows in one of its most beautiful moments, when Skylark resigns herself to let the kind but insisting teenager kiss her, and a stealthy, ginger contact between fingers expresses all the sympathy and solidarity human beings can offer).

But even if that description of the American male seems a bit systematic, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” still wields the camera gently, sticking to a quietly observational, delicately attentive style – it is a vibrant study of a deeply complex personal and social problem that does not try to lecture too sternly but rather to understand what it could take for young Americans to assert what they want to be on the most primitive and essential grounds that nature has given them: their bodies, their sexuality, their feelings. Hittman furthers the effort she put in her previous, 2017, flick, “Beach Rats”, with more maturity – which is a pleasure to watch.

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