Eliza Hittman’s Sundance favorite Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which played in theaters for just three days before Focus Features pulled the film amidst the widespread and unprecedented coronavirus-related closures, released digitally on April 3 with a $19.99 rental price. As distributors and consumers navigate the unexpected changes brought about by stay-at-home measures, social distancing and self-quarantine, the industry will adjust — at least for the time being — to the idea of premium video on demand rather than a traditional rollout in movie theaters.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which received a Sundance Special Jury Award for Neo-Realism before going on to claim the Silver Bear at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, tells the story of a pregnant Pennsylvania teenager who travels with her cousin to New York City to get an abortion. Hittman’s third feature continues to demonstrate the talents, sensibilities and cinematic evolution of a first-rate writer-director, following the closely-observed and emotionally-charged It Felt Like Love (2013) and Beach Rats (2017) — both of which premiered at Sundance.
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A stunning debut performance by Sidney Flanigan, who anchors Never Rarely Sometimes Always as the pregnant Autumn, keeps with Hittman’s tradition of using young actors who convey achingly recognizable humanity. The film keeps viewers in close proximity to Autumn, whose determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable setbacks and challenges aligns with Hittman’s own surgical restraint and withheld judgements regarding her protagonist’s actions. For reasons that Hittman allows the audience to infer from the behavior of the people depicted in the expository scenes, self-reliance is the first, best and only option as Autumn sees it. But she does take cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) along on her journey, and the relationship of the two develops as one of the movie’s most rewarding components.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the devastating consequences anticipated by Autumn, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is as powerful a coming-of-age story as any in recent memory. Hittman is unfailingly good at expressing the uncertainties of the liminal passages facing the two young women. Autumn is naive not only to the speed and volume of NYC, but also to the labyrinth of abortion services, rules and regulations. The cousins are also caught right on the very edge between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience. Hittman effectively illustrates the latter via the introduction of Jasper (Theodore Pellerin), a pushy, pesky and persistent admirer of Skylar. The unsettling mood that accompanies his presence underscores the extent to which both Skylar and Autumn are vulnerable.
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Throughout the course of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Autumn meets with a series of adults, and these figures exist along the entire spectrum of pro and anti-choice (one such scene, among the very best of the year, gives the movie its title). Hittman does not hide her own sympathies, and all of these counselors, caretakers and practitioners act from deep personal investment and firmly-held moral and ethical orientations. In other words, all intend to do what they think is right, or best, for Autumn and others like her. Hittman’s depictions of these interactions, which were constructed from the director’s own deep research, remain wholly devoted to the personal experience of Autumn, whose face and voice reveal the deepest and most empathetic notes, again and again.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.