By Andrea Thompson
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a frustrating viewing experience, not just because it makes you ache for the girls (and women) of the world who so often suffer in silence, but at a film whose empathy can only extend so far. It may be a strange thing to say, because Eliza Hittman has written and directed a film with compassion bursting from every frame, despite its quietly simmering tone. What she doesn’t seem to believe is that they’re capable of something besides that suffering she depicts so tenderly.
The opening moments are a bit much, as a bunch of teenagers perform 50s themed songs while dressed in attire that’s appropriately associated with the decade, raising exactly the questions Hittman wants to – as in how much social mores and expectation have really changed, how much we’re still longing for a time that was never as wholesome as it’s remembered, innocence lost, etc. Anyone aiming for honesty is bound to break the mood, which the secretly pregnant 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) does by singing a song about how an unnamed boy has such a hold on her, she consents to things she doesn’t want to do. A teenage male heckler may call her a slut, but there’s appreciation from the women in the audience, whose applause is a kind of quiet acknowledgment of her pain and theirs.
That acknowledgment stays quiet though, with Autumn’s family bestowing compliments for her performance without mentioning its contents. It’s mystifying until Hittman shows us more of Autumn’s environment, a small decaying Pennsylvania town full of uncaring men who are just as trapped as the women who serve them. The men do have certain advantages though, and they use them to harass and exploit their female counterparts whenever they can. Such oppressive silence requires a certain amount of complicity however, which the pregnant Autumn discovers when she reaches out for help at a local clinic, only to find a place with just enough resources and compassion for her fetus, rather than her.
Autumn is fully, firmly aware that she’s not ready to be a mother, but the women at her local clinic do their damnedest to convince her otherwise, from calling the fetal heartbeat the “most magical sound you will ever hear,” to showing Autumn a video about the horrors of abortion, and reassuring her that all her doubts with magically vanish once she holds her baby in her arms. Which of course she will. With such pressures bearing down on her, Autumn’s helplessness isn’t broken by her, but rather her friend and cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who is the only person Autumn even tentatively confides in. It is Skylar who steals the money from their crappy job so they can head to New York City, where Autumn can get an abortion without the need of parental consent, unlike in Pennsylvania.
Their vulnerability also doesn’t vanish once they get to New York. They’re still alone, on a budget, and having to deal with delays in the abortion procedure, which has devastating consequences for the girls. Unlike other films, the city isn’t a magical place where anything can happen; it matches the rest of the world in terms of coldness, and Skylar and Autumn are constantly on alert for the slightest hint of bad intentions in the men around them. The one place where they find warmth and women who are concerned with their safety and well-being are at the clinics that are, wonder of wonders, invested in providing the care Autumn needs, but never seems to have received.
New York is also the location where the film’s flaws come into sharp focus. This is an insider’s view of the city no doubt, one which is able to view it as actual underdogs would, who are at the mercy of every uncontrollable shift in their meager fortunes, rather than those who arrive bright-eyed and eager, backed by a luxurious safety net for any and all purposes. Yet such a view also has the major disadvantage of being unable to appreciate just how large the city can loom to those who have never seen it, both in life and the imagination. There’s a shift as Autumn and Skylar navigate their intense new surroundings, and even small moments of delight and humor as they savor the exotic desserts and sights of the city, but precious little wonder.
It’s baffling why Hittman saves room for everything except joy, comprehending even the girls’ mostly wordless bond as shes conveys their stoic resilience in the face of…everything, which has already aged their souls even in the thick of their youth. But being unable to see the happiness that can be possible, even for fleeing moments, partially reduces them both to many of the same tired stereotypes of eternally oppressed women who plead for compassion on behalf of others without fully coming alive themselves. It’s another way both of them deserve more.