“A positive is always a positive,” says a nurse at a women’s clinic early in Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. She’s referring to the results of a pregnancy test taken by 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) but despite the flat, dispassionate tone of her delivery, this diagnosis is sharply double-edged: The subtext says “look on the bright side.” For the remainder of her appointment, and then later during a follow-up visit and again via telephone, Autumn is subject to a hectoring empathy that implies she should have the baby despite her obvious misgivings—recommendations backed by Pennsylvania’s restrictive abortion laws that require parental consent. The line between conscientious medical advice and guilt-tripping narrows, blurs, and disappears; meanwhile, the only thing that Autumn becomes positive about is that she will have to take matters into her own hands.
A prizewinner at this year’s Sundance and Berlin film festivals, Never Rarely Sometimes Always arrives on VOD with its sterling reputation preceding it, and yet while the appearance of a major new American film is welcome at a time when the flow of new releases has slowed, it’s evident from the opening frames that Hittman’s vision is cinematic in a way that bristles against the limitations of home viewing. Anybody who’s seen the director’s earlier features It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats knows that she’s a filmmaker with a keen eye, especially for the rhythms and rituals of adolescence; in both films, young, sexually curious protagonists are initiated from innocence into experience in episodes that, as visualized by Hittman, split the difference between hardscrabble naturalism and limpid myth. The hypnotic eroticism of Beach Rats, with its slow, roving shots of shirtless, chiseled male bodies, earned Hittman comparisons to Claire Denis—high praise that nevertheless shouldn’t undermine the originality of her filmmaking.
There’s another great French director who comes to mind during Hittman’s film: the late Agnès Varda, whose 1962 breakthrough Cléo From 5 to 7 documented a young woman waiting anxiously on the results of a biopsy—a character study in intimate miniature, but pressurized like a ticking-clock thriller. In terms of plot, not a lot happens in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which takes its narrative shape from Autumn’s interstate odyssey to procure an abortion in the company of her sympathetic cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). But as in Varda’s largely real-time classic, it’s attuned to the drama of small interactions. Sitting at home with her mother (indie-rock icon Sharon Van Etten) and stepfather (Ryan Eggold), Autumn watches as the latter plays contemptuously with the family dog, referring to it affectionately—but with an edge—as a “little slut,” a dubious term of endearment that Autumn observes in wincing silence. The exact reasons Autumn doesn’t want to tell her family about her pregnancy—whether it’s out of a generalized fear or shame, or connected in a more direct, cause-and-effect way to domestic abuse—are left unstated in Hittman’s script, which skillfully illustrates the difference between effective open-endedness and evasive vagary.
In addition to the suspense built into its quest narrative, in which the desperate pursuit of an abortion doubles as a countdown toward potential danger and trauma, Never Rarely Sometimes Always develops a motif of potentially threatening male characters, starting with Eggold’s obnoxiousness and extending to Jasper, a slightly older teenage boy (played by the electric French Canadian actor Théodore Pellerin) who chats up Autumn and Skylar en route to NYC. In a film strategically filled with musical sequences, Jasper’s droning performance of A Flock of Seagulls’s glistening synth-pop masterpiece “Wishing” is a booby-trapped bit of comic relief, a siren song hypnotizing Skylar away from her commitments as chaperone as Autumn looks on skeptically. The point is not so much that Jasper is a creep, or that Skylar is wrong for catching feelings, as it is the way sexual desire becomes recontextualized by the situation. Hittman’s gaze here isn’t leering or judgmental, and she locates a grace note in the middle of a crucial scene: a close-up of interlocked fingers testifying to a bond that can survive even extreme distraction.
In order for the film’s swift, largely unspoken form of character development to work, Autumn’s feelings and motivations have to be legible to the audience even as she’s trying to conceal them from the people around her, and Flanigan—a first-time actor who Hittman discovered at age 14 at a house party in Buffalo—is a uniquely transparent screen presence. Without compromising Autumn’s tense, tight-lipped reticence, her acting opens up a portal into a complex inner life. The film’s centerpiece sequence—the source of its title—details a meeting between the protagonist and a Planned Parenthood worker in New York whose standard-issue questions about Autumn’s personal and sexual history serve as a form of exposition even though only a minimum of information is conveyed. As Autumn squirms quietly between honesty and denial, Hittman keeps the camera fixed on her face, scrutinizing her responses in a way that may make some viewers feel weirdly complicit in the resultant discomfort.
On some level, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is intended as a critique of both a health-care system and a sociocultural mind-set that keeps throwing obstacles in Autumn’s way, but it never descends into a polemic. There’s nothing as on the nose as the scene in last year’s Waves when the protesters at an abortion clinic are framed as faceless, hateful monsters, and no exchanges that articulate the intellectual or political polarization around one of the most charged subjects in modern American life. If anything, the film’s subtlest point is that for all of the hoops that its heroine is forced to jump through, the choice of whether or not to attempt to get an abortion is still hers. Juxtapose Hittman’s film with the award-winning Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—another possible Euro art-house influence about a black-market abortion performed in the waning days of the Ceausescu regime—and its refusal to exaggerate or caricature the complex realities of Autumn’s plight are clear.
As a blow-by-blow depiction of how a melancholy, resourceful teenager might sneak away under cover of night to surreptitiously terminate her pregnancy, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is never less than believable. What gives it extra power—and helps it to transcend the narrow confines of the “issue” movie—is how it links Autumn’s fragility to intimations of some larger precarity. The New York we see here is one of liminal spaces, bus terminals and late-night restaurants at once teeming and lonely, and there’s a sense of an entire class that lives tenuously by night—exhausted refugees in the city that never sleeps. In It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Hittman found ways to amplify the youthful vulnerability of her characters (juvenile horseplay; dollops of sunscreen on exposed skin) and here she gets considerable symbolic mileage out of a short scene in a video arcade, including Autumn’s encounter with a chicken playing tic-tac-toe that puts an absurd frame around her feelings of futility.
One byproduct of Never Rarely Sometimes Always’s understated approach is that it never quite detonates the way you might expect it to—it doesn’t have the wild, outrageous tonal peaks of a satirical comedy like Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth or the provocative, borderline horror-movie imagery of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Its achievement is closer in tone to the observational solidarity of Varda or the thoughtful Americana of Kelly Reichardt, particularly the picaresque trajectories seen in Wendy and Lucy and Certain Women, which focus on female characters stubbornly adrift in communities and systems rarely torqued to their advantage. Even at the best of times, a movie so resolutely committed to operating at a modest, human-sized scale is in peril of slipping through the cracks, and whether or not Hittman’s film would be better served by delaying its release for a less anxious (albeit also less captive) audience is a debate that’s impossible to answer definitively. Either way: It’s here, it’s good, and it should be seen, not as a piece of escapism, but as a plangent reminder of difficult, everyday dramas that haven’t gone away—and won’t—even as everything around us keeps changing.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.