Three films into her career, filmmaker Eliza Hittman continues to prove herself as one of contemporary cinema’s most empathetic and skilled chroniclers of American youth. Hittman’s trio of features — “It Felt Like Love,” “Beach Rats,” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” her first studio effort — have all zoomed in on blue-collar teens on the edge of sexual awakening, often of the dangerous variety. Hittman’s ability to write and direct such tender films has long been bolstered by her interest in casting them with fresh new talents, all the better to sell the veracity of her stories and introduce moviegoers to emerging actors worthy of big attention. With “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Hittman continues her traditions with her most vivid work yet, one all the more impressive for its studio pedigree. (This is not the kind of film many mainstream outfits would support and make, and more power to Focus Features and Hittman for endeavoring to bring it to the masses.)
The backwards — or, at least, stuck-in-time — attitudes of the film’s small-town Pennsylvania setting are laid bare in its opening credits, as quiet teenager Autumn (Sidney Flanigan, in her debut role) sings at a high school talent show mostly populated by students wearing costumes more suited to a production of “Grease” than a 2020 outing. Autumn’s aching performance of a song about the terrible consequences of love is brave, and more dramatic when one of her peers chucks trash at her in the middle of it. Only later will Autumn’s reputation reveal itself, and even then without much in the way of full explanation, but her place in the social hierarchy as an easy mark (in more than one way) is swiftly established.
What this all means to Autumn is up for debate, but it’s soon clear why she’s so uncomfortable and why her peers seem a bit too up on her relationship status: she’s pregnant, and she’s on her own. Despite a caring mother (Sharon van Etten in an all-too-brief role) and a vibrant best friend and cousin (Talia Ryder, in her first feature), Autumn is clever enough to realize she has to figure this one for herself, even with limited resources and the revelation that her preferred option is not currently available to her. Hittman’s scripting doesn’t push it too far, a fine match for Flanigan’s restrained performance, and when the teen tells her small town’s seemingly lone clinic doctor she’s not sure if she wants to be a mother, everything we’ve seen so far (from Autumn, from her family, from her hometown) supports that belief.
Autumn’s eventual desire for medical care of her own choosing sets her on a journey of emotional confusion and bureaucratic snags that will feel all too real for anyone who has ever experienced even a fraction of her journey of self-determination (and self-care). She’s joined on her desperate, often unnerving trip to New York City to procure an abortion by her beloved Skylar, with Hittman designing an odd couple that’s incredibly relatable and just wonderful to watch onscreen together. While it’s Autumn who keeps things close to the vest, with Ryder cast as the more outspoken and vibrant of the pair, Hittman mines Flanigan’s reserve for some of the films most notable dramatic beats. Nothing, however, can compare to a single-shot take in the film’s final act that shows off Flanigan’s formidable skill, as Autumn is forced to crack open during a personal interview filled with the one-word answers from which “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” takes its title.
The film’s first act is occasionally so heavy-handed as to detract from the drama at its center, often layering on relatively smaller instances of male aggression and toxicity that, in Hittman’s attempt to illustrate the environment both Autumn and Skylar have been raised in, fall oddly flat. There’s something clearly wrong with Autumn’s father (Ryan Eggold) before he affectionately wrestles the family dog, only to call her a slut for enjoying the attention (yes, she’s just another girl in his life he can demean), and whatever is happening with the girls’ creepy manager Rick (Drew Seltzer) is awkwardly handled with little payoff.
The film hits its stride once the pair hit the road, heading out to New York City for a dizzying few days that will forever impact their lives. Along the way, they even meet the film’s most compelling male character: played by “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” standout Théodore Pellerin, who meets the girls on the bus and won’t stop needling Skylar for a date. His brand of toxic masculinity is most fine-tuned, and he’s the kind of dude who would surely deem himself a “nice guy,” one of the good ones, even as his presence becomes all the more uncomfortable for both the girls and the audience.
The bond between Autumn and Skylar is the beating heart of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” which, despite its subject matter and a heartbreaker of a first trailer, isn’t just the wrenching drama many might expect. Yes, it’s a searing examination of the current state of this country’s finicky abortion laws and the medical professionals tasked with enforcing them (from the small-minded to the big-hearted), and if art can have any impact on its consumers, the film will stick with many of its viewers, perhaps even changing long-held beliefs. But it’s also a singular look at what it means to be a teenage girl today, and with all the joy and pain that comes with it. Autumn and Skylar will never be as vulnerable as they are right now, straddling the line between child and adult, and doing their damnedest to make the right choices for themselves. No one understands that as keenly as Hittman, but perhaps “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will remind more people of that naked, terrible fragility and what it means.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Focus Features will release it on March 13.