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“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” Represents Essential Viewing For Teenagers

It’s not often that a piece of cinema is essentially required viewing for teenagers. Largely, they’re a moviegoing audience that takes in spectacle, though they certainly don’t go to the theaters as a monolith. However, they aren’t often exposed to a film that may well save their life. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is actually that kind of a movie. The latest work by filmmaker Eliza Hittman is far more than just a story of teen pregnancy. It’s a sobering look at what some states make you go through to get an abortion, as well as an absorbing character study. Moreover, it’s just one of 2020’s best so far. (Kudos to whomever got this a PG-13 rating, allowing the young viewers who will actually be impacted by this sort of event the opportunity to watch the movie)

The film is a drama that sounds simple on the surface, but is actually anything but. At its core, this is about female adolescence in rural Pennsylvania, and namely how the odds are stacked against you. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) seems like your average teenager. She goes to school, works as a cashier with her best friend and cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), simply going about her days. Home life doesn’t seem great, and there’s a boy she has a complicated situation with, but when she finds out that she’s pregnant, that’s when things change. A visit to her local doctor results in subtle pushes for her to keep the baby, either for herself or to give up for adoption. Attempts to end the pregnancy herself don’t work, and when she begins to experience sickness, Skylar provides support. Together, they get on a bus to New York City, headed for Planned Parenthood. Unfortunately, things aren’t as simple as they’d thought, resulting in a multi-night stay in the city, which is well beyond their means. Autumn now has to worry about basic survival, as well as a procedure that will leave a lasting impact on her life, even if she knows she’s not ready to be a parent. Hittman writes and directs, with music by Julia Holter, as well as cinematography from Hélène Louvart. The small cast also includes Ryan Eggold, Théodore Pellerin, Sharon Van Etten, and others, though this is all about Flanigan, with the main support coming from Ryder. Count Barry Jenkins among the executive producers.

I was absolutely blown away by Sidney Flanigan’s performance. There’s a sequence where Flanigan’s Autumn is being asked a series of questions at Planned Parenthood. Eliza Hittman’s camera just stays on her as she answers them by choosing between never, rarely, sometimes, or always. They probe into her relationship and sexual history, looking for signs of abuse. Her answers are somewhat evasive, but the breakdown on her face is absolutely devastating. It’s perhaps the best individual scene of acting I’ve seen all year. Flanigan is extraordinary here, deserving of huge praise and a tremendous career to come. Talia Ryder is terrific too, playing her cousin and companion on the trip. Together, they don’t have an ounce of artifice in their turns. It’s truly something to behold.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always has a way of never demonizing the pro-life crowd, but still making a clear point about the women’s rights. The difference between how an unwanted pregnancy is handled in Pennsylvania and New York is noticeable, but Hittman is quick to let you see how both ways are flawed. Now, one is manipulative, while the other is perhaps too clinical, but the genius of Hittman’s script is that you see Flanigan’s protagonist working it all over in her head. No one in front of or behind the camera preaches or makes an out and out political point, but by merely depicting what one girl of lesser means has to go through in order not to be placed in an inescapable position, the point is clear. In fact, it’s downright harrowing to witness.

Opening this week, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a remarkable achievement. This is a must see film. There isn’t a single moment here in the movie that doesn’t ring true, whether it’s in the kindness of individuals, or in the cruelty. Mostly, it’s a phenomenal character study that everyone should see. The flick will speak loudly to anyone, but again, for teens, it may well be the type of picture that saves a life. In that regard, there may not be a more important work of 2020, but so far this year, there also hasn’t been much else that’s better, overall.

Be sure to check out Never Rarely Sometimes Always, in theaters this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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