By Elias Savada.
Now, more than ever, films that you’d expect to find in your Sadly Infrequently Occasionally Constantly attended art house cinemas aren’t there because of the Covid-19 crisis. Like most film distributors (at least in the United States), Focus Features has made Eliza Hittman’s wonderfully absorbing drama available at a slew of various streaming platforms (listed at the end of this review). While I miss going to the movie theater, I believe Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t suffer as an online screening offering because of its intimate nature.
Hittman’s feature, her third after It Felt Like Love (2014) and Beach Rats (2017), is another emotionally and character-driven study of youth in turmoil. As much as it attacks the disparity in health care that is found in the U.S. of Angst – causing its citizens to battle over a woman’s right to choose – the film is also a road trip through the raw human condition that is New York City. Even with the obvious research undertaken by Hittman (as the film’s writer), it’s never presented as an overindulgent, bang-you-on-the-head approach to abortion, thanks to an incredibly effective cast.
Sidney Flanagan brilliantly encompasses the protagonist that is 17-year-old Autumn Callahan, a disheartened member of a blue collar Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, community that is prone to nasty shenanigans and angry taunts. Her no-goodnik step-dad (Ryan Eggold) has no idea how to communicate with anyone but the family dog, and her mom (Sharon Van Etten) is only slightly better, even as she offers Autumn a cold bottle of Yuengling Lager. (The minimum drinking age in Pennsylvania is 21.)
So, no role models. Except Skylar (Talia Ryder, also radiant), her same-age-or-so cousin and co-worker at a local supermarket.
When Autumn visits a nearby health clinic, she’s not at all entranced by the “magical sound” of the sonogram machine as a genial but un-pro-choice health care worker attends to her unwelcomed (for Autumn) condition. Instead, she’s unfocused, trying to figure out her next step, in a marvelous display of Hittman’s capable and reality-based direction and Flanagan’s amazing thespian skills. After being shown a “Hard Truth” video featuring real life Republican Gregg Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform that promotes pro-life choices, the teenager is sensible enough to realize she needs a second opinion. Sadly, that ain’t gonna happen in her state. Instead she turns to the Internet for information. Bad choice. She gobbles down dozens of Vitamin C tablets in the desperate hope that this unproven and often dangerous DIY method to terminate will work. She even begins to punch her belly, but it’s more self-punishment than condition effective.
At the half-hour mark, the road trip begins in the dead of night, when Autumn and Skyler, on empty winter streets peppered with wisps of snow, take the problem to New York, a state with a better understanding of her problem. It’s a fascinating start to their journey, as the bland blue collar business facades stare at their faces on an outgoing bus, offering an intense sense of decay.
So, let’s praise the techies behind the film. Director of photography Hélène Louvart has an great eye for authenticity, loves those steel blue/earth tones and the neon glare of NYC, and keeps the image relatively close. The grainy photography adds a documentary, real-life feel to the proceedings. She’s helped by both the locations (production design was by Meredith Lippincott), especially those in New York City (which appear to be in the Penn Station area) and the dissonant score provided by Julia Holter, which often comes off as a cacophony of the city’s heartbeat and mimics Autumn’s confused state. The result is a Strangers in a Strange Big Apple land vibe.
Théodore Pellerin plays a slightly older offbeat wisp of a character, one who chats up the girls as they head to New York and later helps them escape from it, albeit with some odd entanglements and after some brief encounters with Skyler.
As for Autumn, the story pushes her pregnancy to the front as she visits a Planned Parenthood outlet in Brooklyn and learns the religious-based folks back at the Pennsylvania clinic weren’t really all that honest.
When Autumn’s condition demands more time in the city, her pride is fractured, as evident by her inability to ask for housing help for the extra night.
So NYC becomes both her beacon of hope and a cesspool of decrepit behavior – just ask anyone who rides its subway system. It’s Hittman’s little things that add to the film’s gentle, forceful intent. A few minutes in a game arcade playing tic-tac-toe against a chicken, some karaoke, a few frames of bowling.
The most harrowing moments in the film occur when a health worker asks Autumn a series of questions that she needs to answer from the four adverbs that comprise the film’s title. Autumn’s tired eyes well up with agony. Her face trembles as her tears flow, her eyes are buckets of depression. This pregnancy goes deeper than hell and she does not want to relive it.
I’m not quite sure why they packed a suitcase, never opened, that they lug all around town, other than as a metaphor for the unwanted child.
The low-key approach that Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes is quite successful in conveying the bare bones nature of its nuanced story. Embrace it.
Available April 3rd at: Amazon, Apple, Comcast, DirecTV, Vudu, Google/YouTube, Charter, Verizon, Microsoft, Dish, Fandango, Sony, Cox, Altice, Vubiquity, AMC On Demand, and Redbox.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).