The opening minutes of Eliza Hittman’s exceptional film is a masterclass in economy, grabbing your attention, setting the tone and swiftly setting up the characters and situation. We open to a stage, curtained backdrop, coloured lights; a high-school performance. First performance: eight teenagers in 1950s clothing, formation dancing to a lightweight rock-n-roll recording. Cut to a miming Elvis impersonator. Cut to three boys, harmony-singing a 50s pop ballad. Fun. Cheesy.
Then we cut to 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), alone on stage, simply attired with an acoustic guitar. No miming here, this is the real thing. Her face and body language tell us she’s uncomfortable, determined, anguished. Earnestly singing, accompanying herself with acoustic guitar. She’s also chosen a vintage song, a cover of He’s Got The Power! by The Exciters dating from 1963, but it sounds contemporary, direct, eons away from the jaunty, upbeat original. The lyrics, exposed and bare, a confessional about a controlling relationship:
“He makes me do things I don’t want to do … and even though I want to break away, I can’t”
Truthful, stark, discomfiting.
We learn a lot in the following mere seven minutes. We discover that she has recently split from her teenage boyfriend, who now cruelly ridicules her, heckling from the stalls to entertain his friends. We meet her supportive yet overworked mum (Sharon Van Etten). We meet her dismissive step-dad Ted (Ryan Eggold), a man-child who derides her. We learn that Autumn is damaged and vulnerable.
We learn that she has accidentally become pregnant.
An unwanted journey
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Hittman’s third film, premiered at Sundance earlier this year and generated quite a buzz. It was denied a cinema release because of Corona, but even watching on the small screen it completely drew me in with a compelling story, exceptional acting and masterful direction.
The film tells the story of how Autumn deals with her unwanted pregnancy. When she finds that seeking help in Pennsylvania leads to a dead end, she decides to make the journey to New York City to access an abortion clinic, accompanied by her friend and cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). Skylar becomes a central character giving support as the two embark on their journey. The pair must keep the trip secret from their parents, and somehow manage in an unfamiliar NYC with little money and knowing no one.
In a sense this is a road movie, although it depicts a journey that the protagonist certainly didn’t want to take. It’s also a story of the solidarity of friendship. But foremost, it’s a film about the challenges that a young woman such as Autumn face in such a situation.
The acting is uniformly excellent, and Sidney Flanigan as Autumn is incredible. Autumn’s character is withdrawn and quiet, and yet Flanigan manages to subtly express her character’s vulnerability, determination and anguish without resorting to melodrama or sentimentality. It feels very real.
Flanigan’s performance is a consistently excellent, but she is particularly compelling in a central scene in the New York abortion clinic. In a counselling interview, a social worker (played sympathetically by Kelly Chapman) asks questions to complete a form; the multiple choice answers “Never / Rarely / Sometimes / Always” inspired the film’s title. For virtually the entire ten pages of script, the camera frames a closeup of Flanigan’s face as the questions move from the general to more uncomfortable and specific, drawing out the nature of the abusive relationship. We see everything: the discomfort, embarrassment, shame, fear, anger and relief. It’s bold, breathtaking cinema.
That incredible scene is the emotional centrepoint of the film, someone is finally really listening to Autumn, the first time she gets to talk openly about her situation. Flanigan is brilliant in it as she seems to draw from her own personal emotional experience. In a recent Q&A for Reclaim The Frame, Hittman said in that scene the general questions were answered truthfully by Flanigan as herself, and only when it came to the more specific questions did they move into the script.
For Hittman, Flanigan stood out as a very vulnerable and emotional actor and first made an impression on her years before. She first encountered Flanigan, now 21, as an adolescent when she ended up in a film called Buffalo Juggalos a project by Hittman’s partner Scott Cummings (who also edited this film). They connected on Facebook and as Flanigan grew up, Hittman kept noticing Flanigan’s emotional honesty in these Facebook posts. She clearly made an impression as years later she was cast for this central role, her debut feature.
Talia Ryder is also very good as Skylar, Autumn’s cousin; this was also her debut (we will next see her in a small part in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story!). In an understated role she offers a kind of solidarity, providing the support Autumn needs. Sometimes she is directly enabling; it’s Skylar who gets the money they need, stealing from the supermarket where the two work. But often Skylar is a silent companion, giving Autumn the emotional space she needs, providing support simply by being present. At first, Skylar seems slightly older than Autumn, bolder and more capable, but that seems quietly reversed by the end. This isn’t a sentimental relationship, but it is a strong one.
It’s a largely wordless role. The relationship between the two is supportive, but muted; they’re often silent and don’t really talk intimately. A lot is done with the eyes and body language. At one moment tries to express support by asking Autumn directly about her experience, but Autumn pushes her away. Hittman wanted the film to express the solitude and burden of going through the experience alone.
Hittman was keen the two leads were balanced in the film. Neither had acted before. Rather than create backstories for the two characters, which she felt could be a distraction for the actors, she worked on getting the two to bond by sharing personal experiences. Hittman started as theatre but turned to film when she hit a creative and career impasse and she comes across as very much an actor’s director, very supportive and emotionally perceptive.
It’s a man’s world
It seems the film has been accused of being anti-male. I don’t think that’s true. What it does do is explore how young women are subtly but constantly put down or intimidated by men, and this is quietly amplified by seeing this from the perspective of the vulnerable lead character. By tackling this theme it would be easy for this film to become preachy and polemical, a fashionable rant against ‘the patriarchy’. But instead it offers an understated, observant perspective that seems truthful and uncontrived.
Sometimes it addresses this theme directly. The central narrative concerns Autumn dealing with the literal and emotional consequences of an abusive relationship, one where the ex-boyfriend yielded significant power over her (‘the power of love’ as the introductory song explains). Later, we meet another male character, teenage boy Jasper (Théodore Pellerin) whose attempts to chat up Skylar are uncomfortably intrusive and he is blindly oblivious to the situation. Interestingly, the only moment where the young women were sexualised was through the eyes of Jasper in the bus.
But this theme is also delicately reinforced by numerous incidental details. The first half of the film, as well as driving the narrative, is a build-up of small situations or ‘micro-aggressions’ where male characters were subtly antagonistic, leading up to the central scene I described previously.
Some of these are deliberate, such as the supermarket boss creepily kissing the girls’ hands or a flasher in the subway. Others are unwitting, such as a metro staff member dismissing them with a curt ‘have a nice day’ when they feel lost in the big city, or the obnoxious stepdad joking how the family dog is ‘so easy’ as she presents to him, at a time when Autumn is probably feeling ashamed and embarrassed of her pregnancy.
The crucial thing is that the film allows the viewer to experience these fragmentary moments from Autumn’s insecure perspective, so we understand how they are received, rather than how they are intended.
And it’s not just about ‘patriarchal’ antagonism. The excellent script and direction allows us to understand how all sorts of incidental things resonate with Autumn. She’s disinterested but conscious of how it’s Skylar (and not her) who is subject to male attention (from a shopper, from Jasper on the bus), Autumns eyes linger on happy couples in the metro. All emphasising her solitude after the end of an unhealthy relationship. At times it seems Autumn is detached and remote, even from the immediate situation, everything internalised.
These subtleties all add to the film’s mood and offer a nuanced expression Autumn’s emotional state.
For a film about abortion and the right to choose, the film is surprisingly objective. Although its sympathies clearly lie with the protagonist and exploring the difficulties a young woman has when seeking an abortion, it doesn’t demonise those who seek to dissuade August.
In an early scene, August nervously visits a local ‘crisis pregnancy centre’ to first get a pregnancy test and then seek advice. I gather these centres are often run by Christian ‘pro-life’ organisations, although it seems this connection isn’t always made clear, their anti-abortion upsetting propaganda masquerading as healthcare. Hittman portrays the woman working at the centre as well-meaning with her own moral perspective and kindly condescension, even though she’s ultimately obstructive and unhelpful. It’s understated and balanced.
Again, it’s down to the subtleties in the script to make the point, rather than brash polemic. When August gets a first scan, she is invited to look on screen at her “beautiful baby”, the ultrasound heartbeat makes “the most magical sound”. Unhelpful and intimidating language for a young pregnant woman considering abortion.
Later, at the New York clinic the inevitable Catholic anti-abortion protesters gathered outside are not depicted as overtly threatening. Instead the camera makes them an amorphous, out-of-focus cluster in the background of the shot. They’re not directly intimidating, but we can’t help but understand the strong impact of their mere presence because by this stage we know how difficult it was for the two girls to even make it as far as that front door. These protesters are standing up against what they perceive to be a moral wrong, but by focussing their protests towards clinics rather than politicians they only intimidate the vulnerable women who visit these clinics.
For Hittman, the trigger behind the film was when she read about how women would take the ferry from Ireland to the UK to get an abortion, illegal in their home country. The initial treatment was set in the UK and the film secured some BBC funding, but Hittman felt she had to transport that narrative to the USA to improve her chances of getting more money. A long-gestating project, it was revived by the success her second film, Beach Rats, enjoyed at Sundance.
It seems Hittman did a substantial amount of research as preparation, ensuring that everything depicted felt true and accurate. The producers worked with Planned Parenthood seeking guidance and access to their facilities, and some of the film was shot in a real abortion clinic. Sidney Flanigan also sat in with Hittman at a clinic to understand the experiences her character would encounter.
It’s not just the accuracy that makes this film stand out. It also avoids melodrama, although the film is certainly dramatic and engrossing. Crucially, Autumn’s decision isn’t a dramatic high point, the film doesn’t agonise over any moral dilemma. It’s much more matter-of-fact, and it’s the obstacles in Autumn’s way that cause the film’s friction and narrative momentum. In this regard, it is reminiscent of Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Palme d’Or winner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the female solidarity in the abortion scene in Céline Sciamma’s wonderous Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Instead, the film’s momentum lies in the depiction of the emotional and practical experience and frictions and Hittman has said that she wanted to excavate the memories that people usually try to bury.
This film is superbly constructed. A great deal is conveyed in this film with such economy we barely register the mastery of the script and the direction. There are many tiny details that express so much. For example, in the morning, we watch August’s mum hurry her toddler, dressing him in his coat ready to go out to school. A few seconds later, she does the same to the stepdad, coaxing him up from the remote breakfast table and out to work. We learn so much about the characters and dynamic in that simple echo.
As well as in the acting and script, a great deal of the film’s atmosphere and tone comes from the cinematography. Hélène Louvart’s camerawork is mostly handheld, and the framing is so close it often crops the heads of the protagonists. It feels intimate, almost claustrophobic. Medium shots feel more occasional and when occur it feels like they have a specific purpose. They are used to emphasise the expanse of the landscape in a journey or to make the girls seem lost and small on the NYC streets, as well as the usual establishing shots.
The colour palette is muted: browns, greens, blues, greys; not flashy. Grey skies, snowy landscapes, drizzly city. It adds to an understated mood that echoes the understated script and subtle acting.
The soundtrack is by Julia Holter, following the footsteps of other experimental musicians providing soundtracks to arthouse films, such as Colin Stetson’s Hereditary soundtrack and Daniel Lopatin’s score for Uncut Gems. Holter’s ambient soundscapes including her own cello and piano playing add atmosphere – sometimes an uneasy loneliness, other times the looping gives it a momentum, evoking the journey. It’s used sparingly but effectively, and it adds a lot to the mood.
‘Staring at a Mountain’, the sombre song in the closing credits is by Sharon Van Etten. Van Etten also plays Autumn’s mum in the film, and this is her first feature film role, although you might recognise her from Twin Peaks: The Return when she sang on stage in the ‘Bang Bang Bar’ during the closing credits of episode 6.
I’ve already described the opening scene when Autumn painfully expresses herself in song. Later in the film, Autumn gets to sing again, killing time in a New York karaoke booth. Tellingly, the song she chooses is ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’, a hit for Gerry and the Pacemakers, another 1960s song. It’s lyrics suggesting perhaps a glimmer of hope, of recovery, that she can put the past behind her and as a new morning beckons.
Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always is an exceptional film. Understated and nuanced, with a carefully crafted script and outstanding performances, it’s entirely engaging. Its low-key mood is one of its strengths, its quiet intelligence is enormously affecting.Follow @davefilmblog
Thanks to Reclaim the Frame for the streaming code.