‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

An excellent movie about the bad options available to a small-town pregnant teen

“Are you abortion-minded?” asks a secretly devout clinician to the anxious pregnant teen. Her loaded questions, half-truths, and outright deceit are only the first of a thousand cuts in the profoundly quiet, quietly profound Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Eliza Hittman’s lacerating procedural, now available on Video On Demand, contains no lectures, no uplifting reassurances, no grandstanding on either side of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. This is a simply an observational drama that also happens to be dripping with dread.

Directed by: Eliza Hittman
Written by: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Sidney Flanagan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten
Running time: 101 min


Seventeen-year-old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanagan) wears her gloom like a shroud. While classmates clown and peacock at the high school talent show, she prefers to strum her guitar and wail out “He’s Got the Power,” a deep-cut song by ’60s pop group the Exciters. “He makes me do things I don’t want to do,” she sings bitterly, biting into each word and talking over the heads of everyone in the audience. Later at the local pizza place, she empties a water glass on a sneering boy. She’s missed her period, and he’s the reason why.

The nearby health clinic is so threadbare from lack of funds that its two pregnancy tests are straight from the pharmacy shelf. It’s a positive result. Both times. The elderly nurse, smiling though her lies, estimates that she’s only ten weeks along, and makes her take a sonogram. “Beautiful baby,” she tells Autumn. At home, Autumn’s family is oblivious. Dad plays on the floor with the family dog, an affectionate pup. “Little slut,” he coos. “Look how easy she is.”

That casual misogyny extends to her part-time job as a grocery-store checkout girl. She and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) share the indignities at the register, but it’s worse when they punch out at the end of their shift. As the girls pass the cash in their tills through a window to the store manager’s office, he grabs and caresses their hands. This time, Skylar skims a fistful of twenties. She knows Autumn’s in trouble.

The cousins take a bus trip to New York City and a proper health clinic, where their no-frills journey is equal parts hope and fear. A charming guy hits on them. A doctor tells Autumn she’s actually in her second trimester. They need to stay an extra night. Then another. They’re running out of money.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a lo-fi, high-stress experience. Every shot telegraphs a working-class milieu full of scrappy sacrifice, resourceful but remorseful. Although the film is set in the present, its cinematography has the grainy 16mm look of a no-budget ’90s indie. The basic plot points even feel like they’re frozen in time. And the little details are bombshells. One doctor looks at Autumn’s belly, covered in bruises from the teen’s own futile attempts at inducing a miscarriage. How much has really changed in 20 years, anyway? Or 30? Or 40?

The centerpiece scene of Never Rarely Sometimes Always explains the title: a standard doctor-patient interview that’s meant to elicit data on the subject’s personal life and sexual history. It’s meant to be banal, and, with its choice of only four answers, even discreet. But as the camera unblinkingly stays on Autumn’s face, we see her writhe with every reply. Her struggle to choose from only those four words speaks volumes, an emotional gauntlet about a hidden life full of shame, bad choices, and no exits.

Cynical naysayers who don’t see Never Rarely Sometimes Always might dismiss it outright as an After School Special. But that’s a knee-jerk disservice: it’s a social-message drama the same way that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a mental-health PSA. Hittman’s nerve-wracking feature portrays a small-town girl with limited resources and even fewer options. It’s a revelation bursting with fraught moments, a tattered tapestry of small moments that capture a harrowingly epic tale.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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