“A positive is always a positive.”
One of 2020’s best opening sequences – and in this case statements – comes from the little gem Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a stirring and occasionally powerful film that champions a certain subset of the voiceless. Following a few feel good throwback routines channeling 50’s era sock hops, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) takes the talent show stage in a pink satin jacket, strumming her guitar and performing a resonant, modern rendition of The Exciters’ “He’s Got The Power.” All of the previous acts leaned into the cheery play and the antiquated dress up, but Autumn is heckled and booed, jeered and called a slut from the crowd as she interprets a peppy song with the acoustics of her personal pain. It’s probably because she dares to be different and to push back. We get to know her in a matter of seconds. Never Rarely Sometimes Always does more in one scene than most stodgy dramas do over the course of two hours.
The 17 year-old Autumn doesn’t have much of a home life to speak of. Her mom (Sharon Van Etten, a singer/songwriter who contributed to the soundtrack) tries to assure her daughter of how well she did. Ted (Ryan Eggold), a grimy drunkard, lops on half-hearted praise because he’s been told to. Sometimes the “family” watches TV together. Autumn has drinks with them. A troubling shot shows her glugging mouthwash rather than gurgling and spitting. Like most at risk youths, she goes to school because she has to, and is a supermarket clerk with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) as a means of making her own money. Even there she can’t escape the creepy perversions of the patriarchy, passing over counted bills from her drawer to a faceless manager who kisses her hand. She cringes, as do we. Everywhere Autumn goes it feels like Fall. Even the picture itself, colored with tan browns and mustard yellows, looks as if it’s been depleted of life, with the exception of Autumn’s fertile womb.
The drama takes a turn when Autumn is revealed to be pregnant. She wants an abortion, is lied to by religious folks at a walk-in clinic, and makes the trek into the city with Skylar to learn she’s farther along than she was led to believe. Writer/Director Eliza Hittman’s (whose previous 2017 film Beach Rats was a breakthrough creation) once again covers the mean streets of New York with a guerrilla warfare style, doing and accomplishing more with a minuscule budget than big productions typically can with millions. Hittman’s story tests Autumn’s will to turn over a new leaf despite the power structures and the conditions refusing her rightful choice for renewal, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always depicts the multitude of avenues built by men that are systemically designed to shame and oppress women. It says a lot with a little.
The bounty of truths here are hard to ignore, as is the mesmerizing performance from Sidney Flanigan, emoting quivering pain through her eyes in moments of silence and using her scratchy, soulful voice on the rare chance she gets to sing. She’s shockingly good. As for the film itself, I personally felt that it gradually became more emotionally detached and less effecting the further along it went, and left me wishing that the third act had been written with the visceral clarity of the like-minded 2007 Romanian Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Hittman’s film operates at its best when it’s personal and sterile, showcased in the all-important questionnaire scene that inspired the title. So while I wanted more of those raw reactions to propel a more impactful and memorable ending, there’s no denying that Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a film that’s unafraid to expose apathy and hopefully raise awareness. I won’t remember this drama as the years come to pass, but I won’t soon forget it either.
“Even if it’s negative it still could be positive.”
Rating: 4 out of 5