On-Demand Movie Review: “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

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Courtesy of Focus Features

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a film with a cumbersome—but, as viewers will discover, profound, title—is an admittedly joyless odyssey through the bumpy byways of women’s reproductive rights. If that sounds like a heavy sort of commitment in our quarantined present, when most of us are re-streaming “The Office,” then fair enough. But it’ll be your loss.

The breakthrough third feature from writer-director Eliza Hittman, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” won a Special Jury Award following its premiere at Sundance in January, and was all set for its rollout on the doomed weekend of March 13, after which movie theaters shuttered nearly nationwide. Eating its losses, distributor IFC is releasing the film digitally today, and while it’s hardly the escapism some viewers may be looking for, those hungry for docu-style art-house naturalism should seek it out on their preferred VOD platform.

Actress Sidney Flanigan—a YouTube singer/songwriter making her professional debut—plays Autumn, a 17-year-old with a modicum of vocal talent, a part-time supermarket checkout job, and little future to speak of. She subsists in her disillusioned Pennsylvania suburb, with her mother (rock singer Sharon Van Etten) and apathetic stepfather (Ryan Eggold). Stomach pains send her to a local clinic, where a pregnancy test proves positive. Needless to say, this conclusion was neither planned nor desired.

Sidney Flanigan in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” Courtesy of Focus Features

In its steadfastly understated way, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is an indictment of this nation’s inconsistent patchwork of abortion laws. Because Autumn lives in a red state that requires parental consent for abortion procedures, she is forced to cross state lines, into New York, to terminate her pregnancy. Autumn lacks the money for the bus ticket, let alone the abortion, but she has a loved one in her corner: her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who manages to secure funding through a combination of lies, theft, negotiation and wiles, and who remains Autumn’s tactical and emotional bedrock.

Flanigan and Talia Ryder

As the girls purchase their first Metro Cards and encounter subway buskers and leering creeps, Hittman captures a palpable sense of New York City as a gaping manhole of restlessness and lasciviousness, with a dash of the surreal: There’s a terrific moment of comic relief, in which Autumn loses a game of tic-tac-toe to a live chicken in a video arcade, that’s right out of a Werner Herzog picture.

Hovering over every action, though, is a sobering, slice-of-life tutorial on abortion in the 21st century, presented less as a political lightning rod than as a legal, if sometimes unobtainable, medical procedure. Hittman interviewed professionals in the service of women’s reproductive rights, and was granted full access to the Planned Parenthood clinic where parts of this movie were shot. In the film’s best and most uncomfortable scene, a counselor interviews Autumn about her sexual history, which provides us the first inkling of the father’s identity—and achingly puts Autumn’s consent to the act of conception into question.

The film’s most enduring benefit may be its refusal to pass judgment on anybody: Not on Autumn, for finding herself the recipient of an unwanted pregnancy or for seeking the procedure; not on Skylar, for securing their needed funds by whatever means necessary; not on Autumn’s hometown clinic, which attempts to dissuade her with an anti-abortion propaganda video. Hittman understands that everybody is doing what they believe is right.

I’ve seen earnest American indies that have taken clear stands on the contentious abortion issue, both from the right (“Gimme Shelter”) and the left (“Obvious Child”). Neither are particularly helpful in moving this issue forward, and neither made for great cinema. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” has the potential for both.

Rent “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” beginning today on Amazon, iTunes, Comcast, Vudu, Google/Youtube and Fandango Now.