Review: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Regardless of the moral or religious arguments wielded by pro-life activists, there is one truth they cannot deny: Even if abortion is outlawed, pregnant women who don’t want to give birth will try to find ways to rid themselves of their fetuses. Eliza Hittman’s film takes that truth as its guiding premise and everything about it, from its clinical exploration of the abortion seeking process to the way the story makes the sexual dynamic for adolescents specific, focuses the viewer’s attention on the unwavering will behind the protagonist’s quest. In fact, the choice of setting the opening scene at a high school talent show with a 1950s theme might feel like a bad joke in any other movie, but in this one it immediately conveys the idea that matters haven’t really changed for American teenagers in fifty years. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) stands alone on stage with a guitar singing the 1963 hit “He Got the Power” while one boy in the audience yells “slut!” She sulks off the stage to desultory applause.

Things are not better at home. Autumn’s step-father (Ryan Eggold) complains about her depressive attitude, which her mother (Sharon Van Etten) picks up on but cannot fathom. Autumn eventually summons the wherewithal to go to the Planned Parenthood clinic in her small working class Pennsylvania town, where she discovers that she is, in fact, pregnant. Her decision to terminate the pregnancy is not discussed with anyone, nor does Hittman give any indication that Autumn mulls it over. It is a foregone conclusion, and after a disturbing instance of attempted self-harm she starts looking for ways to get an abortion. In Pennsylvania, however, a minor must have the permission of a parent or guardian, and Autumn is loath to tell anyone of her predicament. The only person she can confide in is her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), with whom she works part-time at a supermarket where the manager makes sexually suggestive comments as a matter of course. Because of Autumn’s singular determination, Skylar offers to go with her to New York, where it is assumed an abortion is easy to obtain, and after the pair raid the cash register they hop a bus.

Though some will label Never Rarely Sometimes Always (the title refers to the multiple choice questionnaire that abortion patients must fill out regarding their sexual histories) a road movie, it also has that surreal quality of a memory of an overwhelming experience that happened so long ago. To say that neither Autumn nor Skylar is prepared for not only New York but the tribulations involved in getting a difficult medical procedure with insufficient funds and knowledge is a vast understatement. Hittman’s presentation of Autumn’s doggedness in pursuit of her goal is so single-minded as to be scary in and of itself, despite the fact that the people they meet are, for the most part, good. Even the college kid (Theodore Pellerin) who hits on Skylar on the bus and whom they later hit up in turn for help to survive their night in the city and get back home is sincere in his sympathy, even if he demands some kind of sexual gratification in return. Never Rarely Sometimes Always has an extremely simple premise, but its complications in terms of social themes and emotional resonance are too numerous to catalogue. By laying out that incontrovertible truth about the abortion question, the movie actually transcends it. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Cine Quinto Shibuya (03-3477-5905).

Never Rarely Sometimes Always home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Focus Features LLC

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