Drama ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ is a difficult but insightful watch about teen pregnancy.
Kernel Rating: 4 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 101 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 15+. This drama follows a pregnant teenager from Pennsylvania as she travels to New York City for an abortion. The film makes clear the weight of her decision to terminate her pregnancy, as well as the difficult situation in which she lives: an abusive, possibly sexually abusive, stepfather; coworkers and a boss who sexually harass the girl and her cousin; and a bullying school environment. There are some scenes of physical violence, including a woman hitting her own stomach to attempt to cause a miscarriage; some scenes of implied sexual abuse, like a man forcing young women to receive kisses from him they do not want; and discussion of sexual violence, including mentions of abuse and rape. This is not an easy watch, and would in particular be mature for young teen viewers. Most appropriate for older teens, perhaps around the age of or slightly younger than the 17-year-old protagonist.
By Roxana Hadadi
Somewhere between a feature film and a documentary, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is an unrelenting, devastating, yet insightful watch about the state of women’s health care in our country and the myriad worries young women face from toxic masculinity, a lack of educational or economic opportunity, and parental disinterest. There are no easy choices made throughout this film, which follows a high school student traveling from Pennsylvania to New York City to terminate her pregnancy. The full weight of every decision is communicated clearly and empathetically, and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” pays respect to the message that sometimes our most formative steps forward are also the most difficult.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is set in rural Pennsylvania, in a sleepy town riddled with farms that have fallen into disrepair and abandoned industrial sites; there are barely any jobs. 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) lives with her younger siblings, her mother (Sharon Van Etten), and her stepfather (Ryan Eggold); attends high school, where she is bullied and ridiculed by boys who call her a “slut”; and works at the local grocery store, where the shift supervisor and other employees flirt with, and make moves on, Autumn and her similarly underage cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). The girls have each other, but no one else to sympathize with their problems. Autumn’s stepfather is crass and crude, making every conversation and comment belittling or sexually charged. Autumn’s mother is more concerned with taking care of her younger siblings, and making sure that her often-drunk husband makes it to work, than noticing what Autumn has been up to. They are growing up in an environment that doesn’t really notice whether Autumn or Skylar exist, and if they do generate attention, it’s only for their bodies, their gender, and their status as young women.
This already-fraught environment becomes more stressful when Autumn learns she’s pregnant, and when she decides—despite the pressure from employees of an anti-abortion center posing as a women’s health clinic—to terminate her pregnancy. To do this, Autumn needs to travel to New York City, the closest location to her that offers those services, and so Autumn and Skylar begin their journey. Every step forward brings another question: How will the girls pay for any of this? Where will they stay? How will they find the women’s health clinic in New York City? What kind of questions will the employees there ask Autumn? Will the procedure hurt? And incrementally, one decision at a time, the girls continue to move forward. There is no doubt on Autumn’s part that she has to do this, but the toll it takes on her to make this choice—and on Skylar too—is deeply moving.
Filmmaker Eliza Hittman makes clear from the very beginning that Autumn is screaming for help (the film begins with a talent show performance where Autumn sings lyrics like, “He makes me do things I don’t want to do/He’s got the power of love/The power of love over me”), but that barely anyone is listening. It’s difficult for her to trust, and to open up, and both Autumn and Skylar have to constantly have their guards up—be wary of what strangers could want, be wary of what a man offering help could require in return. The way the girls have to navigate a world is worthy of much conversation after the film: Do teen viewers see themselves in Autumn or in Skylar? Do they recognize the pressure these girls are under? Do they think Autumn made the right choice? Do they think Skylar is a good friend? On the surface, the film seems to be overwhelmingly bleak—a scene where Autumn is questioned about her sexual history and has to answer questions about sexual violence and abuse with the titular “never, rarely, sometimes, always” descriptors is raw and upsetting. But the friendship between Autumn and Skylar is engrossing and precious, and the love the girls have for each other adds another worthwhile element to the film.
Flanigan and Ryder give excellent performances, and Hittman’s style—which often stays tight on the young women’s faces, and which uses other documentary-style techniques to make clear the reality of their emotions and the New York City world moving around them—adds to the genuine feel of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” The film is often difficult viewing, but it offers a perspective on American womanhood that is informative, insightful, and asking for our empathy.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is currently available for VOD rental through Prime Video, Apple TV, Comcast, DirecTV, Vudu, Google and YouTube, Verizon, and more.