Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is seventeen and pregnant.
She lives in a small, blue-collar Pennsylvania town without much of a support system. Her familial relationship appears strained, as does her relationship with the father of her unborn child. He’s a jerk who interrupts her solo act at the school talent show and deserves a hell of a lot more than a glass of water thrown in his face. Then again, maybe he’s just a jerk and has nothing to do with Autumn’s unwanted pregnancy. Maybe that belongs to her creeper of a boss. He seems like the kind of guy who would force a minor into an unsavory relationship — he’s already taking some egregious liberties with Autumn and her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder). It’s bad, but, then again, the truth might be worse. The mind shudders when certain possibilities are calculated.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always wisely never spells it out. It’s not exactly ambiguous either: You learn what you need to know and no more. Writer/director Eliza Hittman knows that once key pieces of information are revealed, attention is distracted. Find out who the father is, and a new set of questions and concerns come into play. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is not about him; it’s about her.
It’s about Autumn: Alone, young, insecure, and vulnerable. And Hittman stays close to Autumn, making her the focus of every shot in the movie. Even when Skylar converses with another — and engages in other unsavory transactions — Autumn is ever-present. It’s as if Autumn is haunting her own story, and cinematographer Hélène Louvart visualizes Autumn’s alienation by turning routine places into otherworldly spaces. An abortion clinic feels as welcoming as a sanatorium, and an all-night bowling alley looks as dangerous as an unlicensed dance club.
It’s a similar tactic Hittman used with her debut film, It Felt Like Love. That movie centers on Lila (Gina Piersanti), a young girl looking to explore her sexuality despite the vulnerability it exposes. Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels like the sequel. Autumn has turned Lila’s vulnerability into a sort of armor, armor that doesn’t protect her; it just looks like it could.
The connections between the two films continue: Men, virtually all of them, are predators and creeps. Only service workers are to be trusted. And the world is big, unimaginably big, with lots of labyrinth bureaucracies. A day trip to Brooklyn for an abortion turns into a two-day stay in the Big Apple with multiple visits and increasing concern over Autumn and Skylar’s dwindling cash supply.
The whole thing is raw but tender. Hittman neither condemns Autumn, nor judges Skylar. And even though Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a never-ending parade of conflicts, the movie has no need, or space, for a clear-cut villain. The many barbs in the world are more than enough.
Written and directed by Eliza Hittman
Produced by Lia Buman, Rose Garnett, Tim Headington, Sara Murphy, Alex Orlovsky, Elika Portnoy, Adele Romanski
Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Sharon Van Etten, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold
Focus Features, Rated PG-13, Running time 101 minutes, Released April 3, 2020, Streaming on DirecTV and HBO Max. It Felt Like Love is available on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.