‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Review: A Woman’s Heroic Journey. In this stirring drama, the director Eliza Hittman tells an intimate story that is also a potent argument about self-determination.
A low-key knockout, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” tells a seldom-told story about abortion. And it does so without cant, speeches, inflamed emotions and — most powerfully — without apology. At its most obvious, it follows a 17-year-old as she tries to terminate her pregnancy. It’s a seemingly simple objective that proves (no surprise given the battles over abortion) logistically difficult, forcing her to marshal her modest resources and navigate perilous twists and turns. Here, a woman’s right to self-determination has become the stuff of a new and radical heroic journey.
That odyssey begins in a central Pennsylvania town where Autumn (the excellent newcomer Sidney Flanigan) is struggling at home and everywhere else. Her mother seems loving and supportive, but also overtaxed from caring for a family that also includes two younger children. Autumn’s stepfather, by contrast, is infantile and aggressively petulant, and seems eager to run her down at every opportunity. (He also has a seriously icky way of playing with the family’s female dog.) Autumn’s more immediate problem is that she’s pregnant and isn’t ready to be a mother.
Physically closed in and unsmiling, outwardly surly and inwardly despairing, Autumn doesn’t quip her way out of trouble or even talk that much. You probably know that girl; maybe you were that girl. She makes bad choices, dumb mistakes, rolls her eyes. She can be casually mean, but isn’t cruel. What she is is viscerally — gratifyingly — real, which makes her more like the blissfully imperfect (if more comic) heroine of a feminist cri de coeur like “Eighth Grade” than the plucky, unthreatening girls that mainstream film loves. All of which makes Autumn part of a slow-moving transformation that, movie by movie, is redefining the roles women play onscreen.
With manifestly unshowy, superb technique, the writer-director Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats”) eases into “Never Rarely” with Autumn performing in a school talent show. The theme of the show seems to be teeny-bopping to the oldies, complete with a tragic Elvis impersonator. Autumn, with her pink satin baseball jacket, looks ready to rock 'n' roll in a “Grease” revival even if her acoustic guitar and glittery silver eye makeup suggest she’s also doing her own thing. “He makes me do things I don’t wanna do,” Autumn sings, braving it alone onstage and turning a 1963 pop hosanna into something close to a mournful protest. “He’s got the power, the power of love over me.”
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