Eliza Hittman's sophomore effort often plays like an American version of a Dardenne brothers film. The camera is intimate, the subject matter raw, and the film is sympathetic and empathetic in ways few films would be about this subject. The subject is abortion, a political topic that is not treated as such here. The film has a message but it isn't preachy. It instead takes you on an emotional and touching journey rooted in friendship.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is singing in a high school talent show when we first see her. She is talented but her performance is interrupted when some bro-dude calls her a slut in front of everyone. The film gives us all the information we need to know about her in the opening moments before it spells out why she is withdrawn and being picked on, she's pregnant.
Autumn's home life is glimpsed in one short scene but again, the economy of information is remarkable. Very quickly it is clear she will not have any support with her pregnancy, regardless if she wants the baby or not. She does not and thus turns to a local Pittsburgh clinic. It is a Christian run pregnancy center and they do everything to convince her that an abortion is not the answer. They even go so far as to lie to her about how far along the baby is to make it tougher for Autumn to seek an abortion out from some place else. Autumn doesn't know this and asks her friend Skylar (Talia Ryder) to go to New York with her. Skylar doesn't ask too many questions and goes with her. Their friendship gives the film many moments of heartfelt levity and joy.
Director Hittman has an uncanny gift for making the film feel more like a documentary than a narrative. The film feels alive and honest, never twisting things to suit the story or to accentuate the drama. She paints a harrowing picture of the lack of options for women today tied to a such a human story that one doesn't even see the calculation at work. Hittman puts you in Autumn's anxious, exhausting world and in doing so, has made arguably the most powerful film about abortion to date.
So much of the success of the film is due to Flanigan in the lead role. It is hard to believe this is her first on-screen role. The performance never feels like one. In a key scene involving an abortion clinic questionnaire that gives the film its title, she reveals the layers of emotional and sexual abuse that complete the full portrait of Autumn. It is a remarkable scene for how little is actually said and yet how much Flanigan is able to communicate. There is never a hint of melodrama here, just stark realism.
One of the film's brave choices is the way in which is portrays caustic maleness. There isn't a single good guy in the film. The reason for this is to accentuate the patriarchy that drives so much of what Autumn experiences. There is her uncaring father, her manager at work who forces female employees to let him kiss their hand at the end of their shift, and a bus passenger who ropes them into hanging out so he can put the moves on Skylar. Hittman nails every one of these interactions, forcing male audiences to understand the threats women often feel when interacting with men.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is one of the year's best films. It is a sobering film but also one that is intensely humanistic. It has moments of joy and friendship that work just as powerfully as some of the more raw and harrowing moments. It isn't an easy watch but it isn't a brutal one. It regularly finds moments of beauty in such a difficult situation.