Quietly powerful new movie impresses
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a film that proves you don't need a massive budget, marquee names or fancy tricks to craft an engrossing and intimate drama.
This is a quietly powerful movie that rarely imposes but, rather, takes the room it needs for its characters to breathe which, in turn, plunges the audience into a world that is very specific and sharply drawn.
Fuelled by compassion, writer-director Eliza Hittman's film is an unflinching and emotionally poignant story about a 17-year-old American teen who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) lives in a town in Pennsylvania which has many empty storefronts. Her family is lower-middle class, consisting of her mother (Sharon Van Etten), stepfather (Ryan Eggold) and two younger siblings.
After school she works the checkout at the supermarket with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), where they are both routinely and inappropriately kissed on the hand by a manager who takes their tills at the end of their shift.
When Autumn tests positive at a pregnancy crisis centre, she's left with few options. The law in Pennsylvania means she must have parental consent for an abortion, so Skylar pilfers money from the supermarket for her and Autumn's bus tickets to New York City.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is not an "easy" movie to watch, in fact it's intense, though it has a natural flow and it's well paced.
Its momentum comes not from a fast-moving plot but rather from its keenly observed portrayal of what happens when two lower-middle class teens have only enough money to get to New York but have to ride the subways overnight because they can't afford a hotel.
They're not impoverished, and Autumn is offered accommodation help by the Planned Parenthood counsellor, but something in her (Pride? Embarrassment?) holds her back from accepting that offer.
There's an undercurrent of shame that runs just under Autumn's surface - though Hittman is never explicit about why her lead character is so sad or what she's suppressing.
But it's not the abortion she's ashamed of, an act the film never judges Autumn for. In taking audiences through the process, it demythologises what continues to be a charged subject.
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Some intimations are made about Autumn's life and relationships, but the film smartly chooses to not reveal the details.
It didn't need to because newcomer Flanigan gives a potent performance in a climactic scene in which she is asked a series of questions with multiple choice answers "never, rarely, sometimes or always".
As the questions become more difficult, Autumn finds it harder to keep it under control, though Flanigan and Hittman never resort to melodrama or histrionics. The camera doesn't veers from Flanigan, a restrained but perfectly calibrated choice that forces the audience to confront and consider what Autumn's experience may be.
Up until then, Autumn has seemed stoic and detached, her countenance rarely betraying whatever emotional turmoil roiling beneath. To focus that pain in one scene makes it an unforgettable one.
There's little dialogue in the film and Hittman's visual style is also rather spare and desaturated. But in emphasising the small details of each moment - the joy of buying bread buns in an Asian bakery, the repeated security checks at the abortion clinic, the bond between the cousins - it paints a vivid portrait.
There are similarities to Nia DaCosta's thoughtful debut feature Little Woods, which also highlighted the economic and social plight of two women in a downtrodden community in North Dakota, and the various disadvantages wrought by a larger system that was designed to forget them.
In crafting a specific story about a pregnant teenager, without directly addressing it, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, speaks volumes about the universal experiences of so many girls and women.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is in cinemas from Thursday, October 29
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Originally published as Quietly powerful new movie impresses