TRCH Classic Thriller Season

Film Review: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

22 May 20 words: Roshan Chandy

This story of abortion is both authentic and accessible…

Director: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin
Running time: 101 minutes

Wherever you stand on abortion, you have no excuse not to fall in love with the documentarian authenticity and adolescent accessibility that power this thermonuclear road movie. A film which breaks the “taboo” surrounding such a contentious subject and must be championed as a winning tale of sisterhood and friendship that just happens to have reproductive rights raging in its abdomen.

Directed by Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats), Never Rarely Sometimes Always begins life as an explosive Cry Baby-esque teen flick. Draped in white conquistador jumpsuits, it features an electrifying array of jailhouse rock ballads from Elvis Presley and barbershop quartets performed by students to a school talent show. Amid this best kind of cheesecake comes a profoundly moving riff on The Exciters’ exuberant sixties swinger He’s Got the Power. Emotionally unrestrained lyrics “he makes me do things I don’t wanna do...he makes me say things I don’t wanna say'' speak foreshadowing volumes for their vocalist. 

The singer is Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) - a 17-year-old woman brimming with pint-sized dreams and aspirations. Ambitions that are cut short when she tests positive for an unplanned pregnancy. “If it’s positive, is there any way it could be a negative?” the young lady anxiously questions through barely repressed tears. The patronising health worker ironically quotes “a positive is always a positive” with a glint of discerning disdain twinkling in her right eye.

Very much like Leaving Las Vegas (1995) held back why its protagonist drinks, how exactly Autumn became pregnant is left a mystery to viewers. Hints are sprinkled only in pockets (listen carefully for those aforementioned song lines) while the identity and presence of the baby's father is kept firmly off-screen. Smartly, Director Hittman is much more concerned with the emotional and psychological toll taxed upon any new mum facing an unexpected expectant burden. Feelings of guilt, shame and frustration hang like thunder over Autumn’s slightly mousy complexion especially when - in a wincing scene of self-harm - she repeatedly beats her already bulging belly.

Without parental consent, Autumn is unable to receive an abortion in her home state of Pennsylvania. Becoming increasingly desperate, she seeks solace in cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) with whom she works at a local grocery. Together they travel to New York in search of the procedure, growing closer as the wait grows longer…

By evidence of urgent images of anti-abortion activists staking out clinics to the endless days and nights spent camping in stations, Hittman demonstrates astute factual research into the plight faced by so many women in Trump’s less-than-progressive America. An unsurprising feat considering she cites Ann Rossiter’s 'Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The “Abortion Trail” and the Makings of the London-Irish Underground, 1980-2000' as an inspiration.

Flanigan’s impressively physical responses will hit home for millions of young people wearing the same shoes

The director’s deft hand towards hefty paperwork in Planned Parenthood centres inches one step further thanks to the addition of a real-life counsellor for the movie’s most pivotal scene. Kelly Chapman is the name of the specialist tasked with quizzing Autumn on health, history and safety. She engages her in multiple choice questions that require answering with the titular “never, rarely, sometimes, always”.

Riddled by deeply personal queries involving the use of a condom, the prospect of physical abuse and suggestion of rape, you’re half anticipating derisive screams to come spiralling out Autumn’s mouth. Admirable then that Sidney Flanigan’s muscular performance oozes understatement. Through significant pauses, clearing the throat or sniffling of the nose, her impressively physical responses will hit home for millions of young people wearing those very same shoes.

Beyond by-the-number details, Never Rarely Sometimes Always possesses the visual aesthetic of a first-rate documentary. Colour schemes here are beige for its grocery store and blue for paint peeling off cracked clinic walls. Special plaudits must go to cinematographer Helene Louvart for making environments as drab and dreary quite so cinematic. Meanwhile almost Kubrickian, alienating architecture compliments the accelerating station scenes.

To outsiders, the contentions of abortion may make Hittman’s film appear more a treatise than a treat. There’s also the age-old concern - in a film rooted in reality’s mundaneness - that what goes on in the real world is far less exciting than what’s suitable for screen. All these are reasons to cherish the unbreakable bond shared by Autumn and Skylar which lend the movie its universal appeal. 

Whipped up with the emotional electricity of Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures (1994), this audacious teenage chemistry allows the polemics of the head to co-exist with the passions of the heart. For instance, I was simply swept away by a late moment of silent hand-holding. A nice reminder that love triumphs against the weariest adversaries.

In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the Academy may have a viable Oscar contender. Whether showered in gongs or not, there’s no doubting how eye-opening, insightful and most crucially accessible this brilliant film really is.

Did you know? The film thrived on the festival circuit, winning a Special Jury Award at its Sundance premiere and the Silver Bear at Berlin International Film Festival.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to rent now.

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