Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
Written & Directed by Eliza Hittman
Throughout every frame of the muted, washed-out colors of this film, we’re presented with contemporary life from the point of view of an older teenage girl. We start in the rainy, crumbling streets of small-town Pennsylvania and end up on the crowded flowing sidewalks of New York City. The world is vast, a background smudge of light, a maze being navigated by two young women nervous and afraid. They want to pass through a moment in their lives so they can move on, but it’s unclear if the world after will be better.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a seventeen-year-old girl withdrawn and always seemingly worried. She confides in her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) that she’s pregnant and wants to terminate. Using money from the grocery store where they both work, the girls set off on a bus to New York City, where Autumn can get the procedure done without needing her parents to sign off on it. Traversing the city and being made to wait three days for the abortion forces the young women to find anywhere they can to get a couple of winks of sleep and simply sit for a while. Tension grows between them due to exhaustion and dwindling cash reserves, but it’s their bond that will help them get through this time.
This is a movie absent of melodrama when it so easily could have slipped into the realm of the maudlin. The film is told in a minimalist style, a handheld camera for many shots, and lots of close-ups of faces. Writer-director Eliza Hittman chooses key moments of when to move the camera and when to linger on her actors’ faces, letting them perform in the space. There’s a scene where Autumn is being asked a series of questions by a worker at the clinic, and through her face, we’re told a story. The questions center around her sexual history and any possible abuse. Autumn’s speed or lack of in answering these queries, her shifting in her seat, her asking a question in return are all captured with no camera movement. That moment is almost like a short film unto itself.
You might expect the movie to devolve into the “mean streets of New York” cliche, but the city never becomes an antagonist. It’s not the most comfortable place to maneuver when you don’t have money for a hotel room, but it never actively fights against the girls. There’s a young man they meet on the bus who hits on Skylar and later comes back into the story when they need some food and money. But to the movie’s credit, he just ends up being a typical guy, not an overt sexual assaulter. He’s still gross and chauvinistic, but the girls are never in danger of being raped.
Other men in the film are much more nefarious and loathsome. Boys at Autumn’s high school interrupt her talent show set, yelling out, “Slut.” Her father makes disgusting insinuations at his wife for not giving in to him sexually more easily. The manager at the grocery store grabs both girls’ hands at the of the shift when they hand over the bank bags, kissing and licking them. To some men, they might roll their eyes and think Hittman is just creating an exaggerated negative portrayal of the male species. But, if you actually engage with women in conversation on this matter, you learn that they are habitually harassed and objectified from one to degree to another from adolescence onward. A scene on the subway where a man in a suit pleasures himself while looking at the girls is reflective of stories I’ve been told by multiple women about experiences they had as teenagers.
The movie is an extremely quiet, intimate picture. We really get a front-row experience of what is going through this woman’s mind, the ups and downs of her emotions. Ultimately, she and her cousin are closer, and we know Autumn is going to be okay. There’s enough ambiguity in the film that we’re left with several questions, but Hittman fulfills the emotional arcs of these characters. They are women in a world they cannot uproot and make safer or kinder to them, so the girls cling to their bond and care for each other in whatever ways they need to for survival.