Never. Rarely. Sometimes. Always: A multiple choice many will be familiar with in some form or another. These are the typical options that face anyone being asked to assess their mental and physical wellbeing in a medical setting. These words can appear anywhere from a dentist surgery form to a direct question from a therapist. In this case, it’s in a wellbeing assessment for 17-year-old Autumn, ahead of an abortion. It’s a rare and captivating moment in the middle of writer and director Eliza Hittman’s latest film. Autumn is a closed book, and it’s easy to see why. We’re introduced to her on a school stage where her performance is interrupted by a classmate yelling ‘slut!’. We then witness her toxic home-life where a volatile father figure dominates. Meanwhile her shifts at a local grocery store involve putting up with the unsettling advances of a creepy manager. Never Rarely Sometimes Always portrays the bleak realities of the modern American teenage girl in a time of crisis. Discovering she’s pregnant, Autumn’s only support and information comes from Google searches. She eventually journeys to New York for a termination, unable to receive the treatment and care she needs in a hometown where scare tactics are deployed to pressure her into going through with the pregnancy. Her cousin Skylar joins her despite the fact that Autumn’s emotional barriers are so high that Skylar’s support and sacrifices go largely unappreciated. With a crumpled handful of cash and a heavy suitcase in tow, the duo make their way to New York, in search of support from a health care system that seems set against them.
Hittman brings a gentle and simplistic touch to the film where actions speak louder than words but the occasional words are dense with meaning. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a heartbreaking portrait of teenagers forced to grow up too fast, left damaged and numb by an adult world, long before their twenties. It’s a tough watch at times; a bold, blunt story of girls alone in the world. Hittman treats the duo with great empathy as they attempt to navigate a world full of obstacles. With America’s reproductive laws and rights varying drastically from state to state, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells a story I imagine is increasingly familiar to many American women. The film is a protest and a pilgrimage; young women attempting to put themselves first in a culture attempting to make decisions for them. It’s rich in texture, largely down to Hittman’s choice to shoot on film. The colours are deep but muted and the cinematography matches the bleakness of the story. Sidney Flanigan is remarkable in this her debut. Her performance is reminiscent of other breakout actors found in the films of Andrea Arnold such as Sasha Lane in American Honey or Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank. There’s just something about independent female filmmakers and their ability to discover and nurture new on-screen female talent. Talia Ryder is just as magnificent as selfless cousin Skylar. The film’s most tender moments are when the two girls emotionally connect, however briefly. Skylar desperately craves some form of appreciation or response from Autumn but continues to support her regardless and unconditionally, recognising her pain and vulnerability. Most successful of all is how the film shines a light on a confusing and capitalist health care system that us Brits continue to be unable to comprehend.
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