Never Rarely Sometimes Always can be broadly described as a coming-of-age film—the story of a teenage girl traveling with her cousin to procure an abortion is dependent on the main character’s young age—but as with her previous two features, It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman’s narrow focus and unconventional approach makes it difficult to categorize, and even more difficult to dismiss. Her latest effort continues her trajectory of making bold but understated dramas which shine a light on the types of people we don’t often see represented in film—at least not with this degree of authenticity.
The film begins by introducing us to Autumn’s life through her environment. We get an immediate sense of the hardships she endures on a daily basis in the opening sequence: at a school talent show, she plays a song alone on the stage, and during a quiet moment, a boy in the audience crudely yells out “slut.” In the hands of most filmmakers, that moment would be followed by Autumn playing the rest of the song through tears or timidly walking off stage, but instead, Autumn continues the second verse with even more resolute passion. This scene perfectly encapsulates the film’s intent: to depict the unwavering courage of women, no matter how oppressive and dispiriting the forces around them are.
The callousness—often outright hostility—of the men in her rural Pennsylvanian town doesn’t stop at that opening scene, though. The film’s entire first act plays like a distressing look into Autumn’s daily life of being surrounded by suffocating oppression. Her stepfather is unsupportive and creepy, using “slut” as a term of endearment to the family dog, which echoes the film’s opening scene. Her treatment at work is even more horrifying: when she hands her boss the day’s cash deposit through a small window, he forcefully kisses her hand. Hittman brilliantly shows this only from Autumn’s side of the wall, so the audience experiences the disgusting ritual solely from her perspective. The only real ally she seems to have is her cousin Skylar, who works at the grocery store with her and is also subjected to the boss’s horrific sexual advances. Their bond is the heart of the film.
When Autumn finds out that she’s pregnant, she and Skylar take a bus to New York City, because Pennsylvania laws don’t allow a minor to get an abortion without parental consent. The rest of the film follows their journey and the obstacles they encounter once they arrive in the city, and it shows how their relationship is strengthened in the face of adversary. Hittman’s naturalistic approach takes center stage from here; a lot of their time together is spent in wordless passages of them navigating the city, sometimes highlighted by Julia Holter’s ethereal score, but most of the sounds we hear are New York City’s natural white noise: indistinct chatter, car horns honking, the screeching of a subway train approaching, etc. It creates an immersive sense of authenticity, which carries into the scenes at the health facility, where the film goes from simply engaging to emotionally powerful.
In setting out to make a story of two women enduring unforseen hardships as they attempt to get an abortion, Hittman is faced with a serious challenge: avoiding obvious comparisons to the 2007 Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Stylistically, though, her filmmaking is almost nothing like that of Cristian Mungiu. He uses extreme long takes and precise framing to create a disarming remove between the audience and the characters, whereas Hittman and cinematographer Hélène Louvart utilize more energetic camerawork and follow their characters with a sense of urgency, imbuing the film with an earnest empathy reminiscent of films from the Dardenne brothers. Apart from an astounding long take in the middle of the film, the formalism in Never Rarely Sometimes Always is in line with Hittman’s previous features, at once poetic and naturalistic.
Thankfully, Hittman allows the audience to infer the universal message from the film’s narrowly focused story, rather than resorting to blatant didacticism; we’re not inundated with statistics before the film’s closing credits, there’s no voiceover imagining a better world with easier access to women’s health resources. Unfortunately, the film is not without some occasional false notes, though. Most notably, there’s one sequence late in the film between Autumn, Skylar, and a boy they meet which feels narratively contrived and thematically heavy-handed, and the onslaught of abhorrent men in the film’s first act is a touch excessive—opening the film with a man interrupting Autumn’s rendition “He’s Got The Power” by yelling a derogatory term at her sufficiently gives us what we need to know about her relentless oppression, so following it up with scene after scene of harassment from every male she encounters begins to blunt the point.
Occasional missteps don’t dilute the overall impact, though, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an impressive film from one of the most exciting modern filmmakers. The central performances from Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are two of the year’s best, especially considering neither of them have been in a feature film before. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an urgent and powerful film about the unshakable bond between women living in a world dominated by men, and it deserves a large audience.