By Lynn Venhaus
A quietly devastating film without a false move, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will permeate your psyche and stay there. Its documentary-like realism gives this unassuming film power as it sneaks up on viewers like a velvet hammer.
A familiar tale of young blue-collar girls stuck in a rut in a dead-end town is not ordinary at all. Because of an unintended pregnancy, these rural Pennsylvania teens (Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder) travel to New York City to seek medical help. Writer-director Eliza Hittman has located the sweet spot between fine young talent and a non-conventional storytelling method.
Winner of a special U.S. Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival for neorealism, the film also won the Grand Jury Prix (Silver Berlin Bear) at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Truly Moving Picture Award at the Heartland Film Festival this year.
Repressed and sad, Autumn, 17, channels her emotions into her love of music but rarely acts up or out in public. With a dismal family life and jerky high school boys certainly no prize catches in this hopeless rust belt hamlet, she has the look of defeat before she even embarks on a life. Newcomer Sidney Flanigan’s face telegraphs everything she doesn’t say – and it’s a mesmerizing standout debut.
What isn’t said is more gut-wrenching than the sparse dialogue that lets us know just enough information. Clearly Autumn’s hiding a secret. After her pregnancy is confirmed, we never know who the father is but there are two obvious suspects, and whoa, she’s left with little choice and no support. She would need parental permission in Pennsylvania for a procedure. Her mother is remarried to a real creep and has two young children to care for, so it’s complicated.
I am not going to get into a moral debate about abortion, nor make any judgments, but Autumn’s hopeless circumstances lead her to travel to the unfamiliar and intimidating NYC on the train with her loyal cousin Skylar. As a fellow store clerk, Talia Ryder demonstrates why she is such a resourceful, smart and bold girl. They may be small-town rubes but what bravery is displayed as they seek the necessary help. We should all be so lucky to have someone like Skylar to count on in a very cold cruel world.
In the movie’s keynote scene, a frightened Autumn must answer a medical questionnaire with either “never, rarely, sometimes or always.” Showing a masterful control beyond her years, Flanagan’s responses may answer your questions and influence your assumptions.
It’s also disturbing, and you feel the desperation. Neither girl can afford to be vulnerable, and as they navigate a stacked-deck existence, it’s unsettling to see how casual sexual harassment and predatory behavior is in their world. These girls have learned early on how to navigate around these typical toxic males. But for how long?
The film takes place over a short time frame but makes a lasting impact. You just want to scream “Run like the wind” to them and hope they land on their feet somewhere, anywhere but there. And female friendship is a potent tool in anyone’s life.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a drama, 141 minutes, rated PG-13 for disturbing/mature thematic content, language, some sexual references and teen drinking. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Note: This film is available on demand and on streaming services
Webster-Kirkwood Times published a version of this review as well.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.