On absolutely no account to be confused with Sometimes Always Never, a dazzling tiny film starring Bill Nighy and written by the brilliant Frank Cottrell Boyce, Never Rarely Sometimes Always does actually share a couple of things with its near namesake – it’s a drama driven by relationships between people and has great performances by its leads.
It could so easily, in hands other than those of writer/director Eliza Bittman, not have been, since it’s a film “about” abortion. Abortion dramas tend to be issue-y. Here, instead, Bittman stays as far back as she can while still engaging. This is primarly a film about the friendship between two young women.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is in a fix. She’s pregnant and only 17 and doesn’t want to keep the baby. She lives in Pennsylvania where the clinics are pro-life rather than pro-choice. So when she starts making evasive answers to questions at the local women’s health clinic she attends after testing positive, the kindly nurse responds by putting on a video full of gruesome pictures and much talk of “babies” and “children” where the word “foetus” might have been more on the money.
Autumn is a resourceful girl – we see her piercing her own nose with a sterilised safety pin and a chunk of ice to numb the pain – and so she decides that the ony thing for it is to head to New York for the termination she wants. Her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) goes along to hold her hand, and to fight her corner. Of the two of them Skylar is the savvier, but not by much.
Though much of the movie takes place in New York, in essence this is a road movie, the two young women meeting people and overcoming obstacles as they travel towards their destination, which has a nasty tendency to keep receeding as they advance – they have to spend two nights in the city, with no money and no place to stay, when they thought they’d be on the bus back home the same day.
Such is the tight focus that DP Hélène Louvart keeps on the faces of Autumn and Skylar in this grey, featureless, friendless cityscape that we could be in any city, almost any country. Flanigan and Ryder are similar in looks, helping with the idea that they’re cousins, a feeling bolstered by the remarkable rapport of the actors, which is crucial to the film.
Though not issue driven, that’s not to say that the issues aren’t there, but Hittman has a subtle approach verging on reticence. There’s not a way in hell that a pro-life supporter is going to think this film is for them, but on the other hand Hittman is not setting out to antagonise. She has another point to make: that young women’s experience of the world is coloured, especially if they’re pretty, as these two are, entirely by the fact that men are constantly hitting on them. The pressure is relentless.
At no point do we learn how Autumn got pregnant. The girls never discuss it. But there is a barely-there moment early on that points a finger. Later, in the movie’s key scene, Autumn is taken through a checklist at the clinic and Never, Rarely, Sometimes and Never are the possible answers to questions such as “In the past year has your partner made you have sex when you didn’t want to”.
We are left to join the dots.
An immensely subtle film with two luminous performances at its centre – this is Flanigan’s feature debut; Ryder is a star-in-waiting in the Kristen Stewart mould and will soon be in Spielberg’s West Side Story. The score is by Julia Holter, who adds to the ambience of innocence and wistful fragility.
Sharon Van Etten turns up in a blur-on as Autumn’s mother, and sings the outro song, an unexpected bonus in a superb film packed with good things.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021