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Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Film Review

In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, director and writer Eliza Hittman shoots a genre-defying road movie on the beautiful difficulties of facing the challenges of adulthood.

I’ve been thinking about my teens lately. About that awful feeling of overall anger and weirdness you can’t get rid of when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror. About how I hated everyone that even dared to take a quick glimpse in my direction. About the stubborn way I challenged myself to prove I was capable of self-dependence. About how much I might have been right, and about how many mistakes I made. So, as Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always opening sequence hit-and-run me with an all-round sequence of teen-shaming during a high school musical performance, I was kind of ready for it.

Hittman’s third feature-length film is all about being a teen, or, shall we put it better, about what being an adolescent woman feels like. Your body tells you you’re a full grown-up. Society might push you into precocious adulthood. And, just like in a wrathful, absolutely hazy dream, you experience desire, or force yourself into experiencing it. What I want. How I feel. What it means to take care of myself. Seventeen-year-old Hittman heroine Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) lives in a provincial town in Pennsylvania and is probably asking herself these kinds of questions all the time. Especially since her belly has become harder and swollen and her period hasn’t been showing up for more than one month in a row.

So, Autumn takes a pregnancy test. She tests positive. She only tells her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) and begs her to go with her to New York to get an abortion in a big-city clinic where minors need no parental consent to go through with the procedure. Skylar accepts, and the girls embark on a journey into night that will prevent Autumn to become the mother she doesn’t feel she’s ready to be.

Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Focus Features)

And now is when you should keep your over-eager, peepingtomish eyes at bay. As much as you’d like to have some basic doubts met about Autumn’s background – who’s the father? Is Autumn’s family a loving one? Has Autumn been the victim of rape or sexual assault? – you won’t be satisfied. Hittman – who not only directed, but also wrote the film – made sure not to allow any leakage of surplus information. Never Rarely Sometimes Always leaves no space for morbid speculation or facile moralism, and this is what makes Hittman’s drama a very powerful one and an innovative, minimalistic reflection on one of the most troublesome experiences a woman can ever go through.

Julia Holter’s crystalline drop-like music and the soft, shallow focus of Hittman’s frames walk us along a tightrope stroll: will Autumn and Skylar make it? Will their inexperience prevail on their determination? How are they going to withstand the challenges that nightmarish New York will present them? We hold our breaths. We ache for the moment in which Autumn loses control and the real messy fun begins. But wait. Isn’t having an abortion quite the plot-filler on its own? Are we sure we really need some major plot twist to Autumn’s story? Hittman’s reply is one-sidedly clear: no.

 We don’t need anything else. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, everything is just as it should be, making the Berlinale-cherished film a simple tale with a difficult message. A message that does not comply neither with Manichean morality nor coup-driven narrative clichés. A message that defies all our mothers taught us, and that does so by critically rooting for the film’s main character.

Realistically enough, in many countries of the world getting an abortion must be easier today than ever before. So that isn’t news. What is quite revolutionary is that there’s a way to show  abortion (not in a literal way) instead of just talking about it. There’s a way to make bodies speak more truthfully than words will ever be able to. That’s what Never Rarely Sometimes Always aims at representing. Because Hittman’s film isn’t just the story of Autumn, a girl who wanted to get rid of her not-yet-born baby. Instead, it’s the story of Autumn and her abortion: a dignified problematisation of one of the most hotly debated issues in the social world like we never saw it before.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now available to watch on Demand.

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