Tuesday 8 March 2022

Movie Review: Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

A drama about a teenager confronting an unwanted pregnancy, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a stark personal journey into the tortuous maze of women's health services.

17-year-old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) lives in a small rural Pennsylvania community. She is moody, emotionally detached from her family, and subjected to name-calling at school. Her only friend is her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). Autumn is showing signs of being pregnant, and confirms her condition at a local women's health clinic. After an ultrasound, the nurse advises Autumn she is about 10 weeks into her pregnancy and discourages her from considering an abortion.

After researching Pennsylvania's restrictive abortion laws and wishing to not get her parents involved, Autumn attempts, and fails, to self-terminate her pregnancy. Skylar becomes aware of Autumn's predicament, and the cousins cobble together enough money to travel to New York, where abortions are more easily accessible. An already difficult trip becomes more complicated with a series of unexpected hurdles.

An independent production written and directed by Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always wades into a controversial topic with clear-eyed purpose. In semi-documentary style, Hittman tags along as Autumn navigates a complex patchwork of rules and restrictions governing women's health, the labyrinthine puzzle of what can be done, where, when, and for how much creating an often bewildering multi-dimensional obstacle course.

The title refers to the multiple choice answers available to Autumn as she is asked about her sexual health by a sympathetic nurse at the New York clinic. In a harrowing, uninterrupted take focused on actress Flanigan's face, Hittman reveals the scope of her ambition. Autumn's experience with sex since the age of 14 is laced with negative, transactional, and sometimes violent incidents. Dealing with an unwanted pregnancy is just the latest challenge stemming from a warped social structure incapable of properly preparing and supporting girls as they transition to women.

In a potentially exhausting but also deserved swipe at one of the root causes of Autumn's plight, all the male character are noticeably distasteful. Autumn's father is an unsupportive parent. At the supermarket where Autumn and Skylar work, a male customer barely conceals predatory intentions. The male manager at the same supermarket is a lech. On the New York subway, Autumn and Skylar encounter a pervert. When they turn to a young musician (Théodore Pellerin) for help, he continuously and obviously angles for sexual favours. And whoever impregnated Autumn is enough of a lout to not deserve a mention - beyond the devastating revelations from the multiple choice answers.

In a startling debut performance, Sidney Flanigan is in every scene and carries sorrow in her reflective eyes. She conveys the weight of emotional loneliness bordering on hopelessness, but also radiates latent inner strength to pursue difficult solutions. Equally impressive, Talia Ryder demonstrates with minute expressions the true meaning of resolute friendship at a time of need.

In a brisk 101 minutes, Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes no short-cuts. Every on-line search, every request for directions, every apprehensive visit to the toilet seat, and every trudge up a staircase is yet another obstruction. When the world is such a laborious place, the simple gesture of reaching out for a hand to hold carries poignant power.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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